Riyadh: Wednesday 16th May 2012
Thursday the 3rd of May was a hectic day. The first day of my holiday, I had to fly to London and meet my partner at the airport before catching a train, meeting a friend for a long overdue drink and then onward to visit my Mother for the night.
The following Morning, my partner and I would be flying to Lisbon to begin our holiday together properly and, understandably, my Mother was keen to make the most of our limited time together. Sitting up late and discussing the holiday to come my mother confided in me the story of her one and only trip to Lisbon, in about 1962, when aged about 14 or 15, she travelled with her school on a steamer out of Glasgow.
On their last day the children took a train out of the city for a day on Estoril Beach. Whether due to a misunderstanding or devilment, my mother and a friend left the train at an earlier stop and finding themselves at a suitably secluded beach, proceeded to spend the day there sunbathing and swimming and enjoying the amorous attentions of a group of Portuguese sailors on shore leave. At the end of this stolen day, my mother and her friend returned to their ship which was to caste-off the following morning, where to their great relief they discovered that no one had missed them and there would be no disciplinary action taken.
My mother finished her tale with an image of adolescent tragedy; her and her friend weeping salt tears into the Tagus Estuary as their ship took them away from the Quayside and their waving mariners.
Whatever veils were drawn over; whatever embellishments and rose tints have been added by the intervening years, this was a superbly crafted and vivid tale of adolescent innocence and self-discovery, and it ensures that for my mother, Lisbon will forever possess the sheen of romance and tragedy. But the tragedy is not merely the overblown teenage heartache of a more innocent time, when two girls on the threshold of adulthood could spend a day of blissful freedom, away of from the solicitations and values of their supervisors, in a foreign country, without so much as an interrogation or headcount. It is tragic too, because with the passing of time, that age, its innocence and its beauty have gone too.
Those sailors, if they remain alive will be retired now: possibly, given my mother’s youth and their likely superior years, long since, retired. They will have lived and loved and worked in a Portugal which has moved from Military Dictatorship to EEC cash-cow, and which has now returned, thanks to the financial crisis, to its traditional status as a net exporter of young people. It is entirely possible that the grandchildren of those sailors will live and make home in Portugal’s former colony, Brazil, which is increasingly attracting the young, graduate level workers who cannot find work at home, to work in its thriving, mineral rich economy.
Portugal, like her neighbour, Spain, is not a place to be young, today, while thanks to booming economies, her former colonies offer increasing opportunities. Meanwhile, for other young Portuguese, there are other, more traditional destinations which continue to hold sway. A job in London, Paris or Frankfurt affords greater wages, a big city and relative proximity to family.
Wherever they end up, there can be little incentive for the young and ambitious to remain in Portugal, a country whose very financial stability may yet be threatened should collapse in the Greek Economy lead to a domino affect.
Lisbon is a beautiful capital of a beautiful country but its glories have the feel of antique pieces now. The boutiques and high-end hotels lining the Avenida da Liberdade (Lisbon’s answer to the Champs Elysees or Rodeo drive) showed evidence of the recent boom, driven by inward investment from the EU and a global financial bubble it is possible to spend considerable quantities on strappy shoes or a killer frock. But when we were there, the Saturday shoppers were in sparse supply and limited to tourists.
A night spent in one of the “Fado Music Clubs” of Lisbon entertained us to the melancholic, soulfulness of Portugal’s best known form of cultural expression, but while I do not speak Portuguese it is easy to imagine the songs of loss being sung for Portugal herself or for the young forced to flee her borders for a better life.
And it is this “Better life” part which is important.
For Portugal is not the only EU country bleeding people. Ireland, Greece, Spain and increasingly Italy are all doing the same, as to a lesser extent, are the British, and French. Yet what they all have in common is that this emigration is predominantly one of the educated and upwardly mobile. It is not merely that their homelands offer limited opportunities. It is that they are welcome in countries that offer better ones. In recent times this has been confined to emigration within the EU itself, ensuring that affluent cities like London or Berlin had the pick of Europe’s youth to pick from. No longer. And this is crucial, representing a generational loss which is unlikely to return in sufficient numbers to represent any sort of return in capital investment.
For while many depart fully intending to return when things pick up again, the reality is that as young people they are not merely interested in finding work, but also companionship. They are not merely interested in finding a bold-hole but a home. They are not merely content to earn money but want to start a family. As a result, those who can, migrate to cities which represent fun, community, entertainment and romance as well as opportunity. One person, who moved to London from a relatively affluent part of the central Europe, some years ago, was quite open about his reasons for doing so. “Bigger city: Bigger gene pool.”
And it is this instinct to not only move and work but to begin to finally live, which is the biggest threat to the EU in the medium and long-term. For if the cities are to be denuded of her best and brightest, stagnation and decline follow at an accelerated rate.
Which begs the question where will they go?
Understandably language plays a part. A facility with Portuguese greatly assists prospects of finding both work and love in Brazil. Other mineral driven Economies which will ultimately benefit are Canada, the US and Australia, each of which benefits from being a traditional repository for Immigration and boasts existing community infrastructures which add to their attractiveness.
Ultimately, parts of Africa may benefit as well, as European Languages are widely spoken and several states including Nigeria, are increasingly benefiting from inward investment in infrastructure which will accelerate the rewards to be gained from the continents largely untapped resources.
Russia’s rapidly declining population may see it become an increasing vacuum into which foreign migrants are drawn, albeit its terrible climate may ensure that this is managed, somewhat.
Countries like India and China might have less need for European skills, given the size of their populations and the already developed education systems they possess.
Moreover, with populations expanding in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, and technological and education advancing in these regions rapidly, it is unlikely that an aging and diminished Europe will be in demand for long. For when you stop being the inventor of the technology of tomorrow, you also stop being its principal exponent. You cease teaching the skills and need to learn them.
This leads to a long-term prospect for Europe (the continent that first industrialized), of a possible return to agrarianism. This might sound fanciful, but “What If History” is always fun and as the European population begins to decline steeply around 2030, so demand for food will increase globally as burgeoning populations, elsewhere seek to consume more with declining global resources. A Europe, with a diminishing population and limited further requirement for immigration, owing to their relatively meagre wealth generation, may find that its fertile land becomes increasingly, its biggest asset.
In a world where meat becomes a commodity as sought after as nickel, there would be little incentive to continue to crown into Europe’s old fashioned cities. Paradoxically, however, the exception to this rule will certainly be Europe’s ports.
Here, it is not unimaginable to suppose a reversal of Shanghai in 1900, with traders from different global powers competing to bring the great European foodstuffs home to their populations to sell at premium. Which might once again, invest a natural port like Lisbon with the youth and vitality it once had.
And amid the throng and bustle of a once again, great port, might not it be possible for a young girl to escape for the day, un-noticed, step off a train close to Estoril Beach, and spend a blissful day of romantic self-discovery with an exotic young sailor from a distant land.