Jose Magone: The Europeanisation and democratisation of Portugal

“Europeanisation meant not only modernization, but also democratization of policy-formulation, policy-making and policy implementation processes.”


José Magone is professor of global and regional governance at the Berlin School of Economics and Law. Earlier he taught at the Instituto Piaget in Lisbon and – from 1992 to 2008 – at the University of Hull in northern England. Magone specialises in global and regional governance, European integration and the Iberian Peninsula.

In an article published in 2001, José Magone argues that in the case of Portugal, the processes of democratisation and Europeanisation were intertwined. The challenges that followed a difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy – between 1974 and 1976 – were huge.

“Portuguese political elites had to transform the poorest country in western Europe from a formal to a sustainable democracy which would overcome the past traditions of patrimonialism based on clientilism, patronage, closed-mindedness and repression.”

What made this even more difficult was an extremely unfavourable economic landscape. As Magone points out, Portugal – most of its large enterprises state-owned, its economy still reeling from the loss of a huge colonial empire – was bankrupt. Between 1976 and 1985 the country had nine different governments, hampering the consolidation of the democratic system.

With EU membership, this changed. European integration, and EU regional policy in particular, argues Magone, was a crucial tool of democracy-building in Portugal.

“The integration of the Portuguese bureaucratic structures into the COREPER mechanisms [the permanent representations of the member states to the European Commission] and the committees of the Commission steadily changed the nature of governance in the Portuguese case. This integration of bureaucratic structures led to the opening-up of the previously closed-minded authoritarian bureaucratic structure …

The policy formulation, making and implementation of national policies became increasingly subsumed in long-term European programmes. This not only had a lasting modernizing effect, but it also subsequently paved the way to strengthen the democratic structures of the country at local, regional and national levels.”

Portugal’s early years in the EU coincided with a series of wide-ranging reforms spearheaded by European Commission president Jacques Delors. Under Delors, writes Magone, the EU acquired “democratic output legitimacy”. The creation of the Single Market and the Economic and Monetary Union, he observes, “set in motion a process of convergence of the member states’ policy-making structures and cultures.”

“The integration of Portugal into the EC/EU was a major factor in structuring Portuguese democratic governance towards an open-minded, reflective, citizen-friendly, transparent and accountable political and administrative behaviour. This did not materialize soon after membership, but developed gradually as a response to the pressures coming from European public policy, learning from the experiences of other member states and the slow development of national, regional and local civil societies.”

Magone gives credit to Anibal Cavaco Silva of the Social Democratic party (PSD), in power from 1985 to 1995, for launching the overhaul of the Portuguese administration and economy.

“[Cavaco Silva] used the support of the EC/EU to develop long-term development plans which would have at their core the improvement of the education sector, the efficiency of the agricultural sector, administrative reform and sound macroeconomic policies … [He also launched] a vast programme to modernise the public administration aimed at the upgrading of civil servants’ qualifications, decentralisation, increased accountability and transparency.”

EU policies played an important role in this transformation, as “the administration had to increase its efficiency in view of facilitating the absorption, implementation and monitoring of the structural funds.”

One of the most important tools of change was the reformed regional policy.

“European regional policy in the form of the structural funds became one of the central policies pushing the Portuguese political system towards a democratic governance system … Europeanisation meant not only modernization, but also democratization of policy-formulation, policy-making and policy implementation processes.”

A special programme, PRODEP, was negotiated with the EU to address Portugal’s huge education problem. In 1970, 33.6 percent of the Portuguese population was illiterate. (Despite some progress, the problem remained profound in the 1980s.) As late as 1992, almost half of the working population was unskilled or semiskilled. Thanks to the programme, up to 75 percent of its financing provided by the EU, access to education has increased considerably. Illiteracy is now found only among the elderly in a few pockets in the country’s poorer regions.

Structurally, Portugal’s economy has become increasingly similar to other EU member states, with strong growth in the tertiary sector along with a decline in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Portuguese GDP per capita rose considerably following accession, from 53 percent of the EU average in 1980 to 70 percent in 1996 (and 77 percent in 2003).

For Magone, the importance of the EU in Portugal’s development is clear: “The European integration process was an important reinforcing factor in transforming Portugal from an authoritarian to a democratic governance system.”

  • José Magone, “The Transformation of the Portuguese Political System: European Regional Policy and Democratization in a Small EU Member State”, in: Kevin Featherstone and George Kazamias (eds.), Europeanization and the Southern Periphery, Frank Cass, 2001, pp. 119-140.
8 January 2010