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Economic Meltdown: After Greece and Ireland the EU must bailout Portugal. Spain next..

Posted on: March 22, 2011

Just as Portugal appeared to have dodged a bailout like those taken by Greece and Ireland, a domestic political spat was set Monday to worsen its financial troubles and possibly spoil Europe’s efforts to put the sovereign debt crisis behind it.

Portugal’s main opposition parties told the beleaguered minority government they won’t budge from their refusal to endorse a new set of austerity measures designed to ease a huge debt burden that is crippling the economy.

The new steps are likely to be rejected in a parliamentary vote expected Wednesday and the timing could not be worse. A defeat in the vote, Prime Minister Jose Socrates warned, would trigger his government’s resignation, consigning Portugal to at least two months of political limbo just as officials were hoping to boost investor confidence in the country’s future.

“At this point, a political crisis is a big push towards the country resorting to outside help,” Finance Minister Fernando Teixeira dos Santos said.

The national political crisis also threatens to set back Europe’s broader plan to stamp out the debt market jitters — leaders at a two-day summit starting Thursday will seek to ratify key changes to the bloc’s rescue fund and spare Portugal the need to surrender policy decisions to outside authorities through a bailout.

The new European policy would allow the fund to purchase government debt, easing market pressure which has driven the borrowing costs of weak countries to unsustainable levels. European leaders hope the response will herald the end of the debt crisis that has dragged on for more than a year.

That deal, however, was contingent on Portugal implementing the austerity measures that are unlikely to survive the country’s political standoff.

Portugal’s center-left Socialist government, which has insisted it doesn’t want or need a bailout, won the backing of the European Central Bank and the European Commission for that new austerity plan. The ECB has already been helping Portugal by buying its government debt and providing funds to its banks.

With the austerity plan at risk, Portugal’s political woes are likely to sow fresh uncertainty among investors who are nervous about the 17-nation eurozone’s fiscal soundness and prospects for economic recovery. The big worry is that the high borrowing costs will continue to erode confidence and economic growth and eventually threaten the stability of much larger debt-heavy nations such as Spain, Belgium and Italy.

“We think Portugal will eventually need to request a bailout,” said Emilie Gay, analyst at Capital Economics.

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