We meet a former Erasmus student who believes that while Brexit could be a call to arms against populism, it won't mean the end of the EU
With the EU Parliamentary elections just ten weeks away, Euronews is counting down by taking a road trip across the continent to speak to voters about the issues that matter to them. We are parking our red sofa in cities, towns and villages across Europe, inviting people to take a seat and talk about what's on their mind ahead of what is a key vote at a crucial moment for the European Union.
In Portugal, Anelise Borges met a Portuguese telecommunications consultant who took part in the EU's Erasmus student exchange program when he was at university.
Pedro Lima is from a small town in northern Portugal and moved to Porto to study, then to Tallinn in Estonia as an exchange student. He believes that for Portugal, joining the EU was a fast track to development for a country that was struggling economically, and that while Brexit is a wake-up call to combat populism, it will not weaken the European project in the long run.
When asked whether he feels people still care about this project, and whether it has improved his life personally in any way, he cites his Erasmus experience as a learning experience in terms of what it means to be European.
He said: "I was born in a small town in the north of Portugal then I went to Porto – which, compared to my hometown, was a big city – but I never had that kind of multinational experience, so I wanted to study abroad. And so in 2004 I went to Tallinn in Estonia and I met a lot of people, from multiple cultures. It broadened what I thought Europe was.
"I went to Estonia in 2004 and that was the year they were going to join Europe, so I got to experience the feeling of excitement they had about that."
He feels that this experience of observing what it meant to Estonia to join the EU gave him a fresh perspective on what his home country of Portugal could gain from its membership.
He explains: "When Portugal joined Europe I think we had a selfish view – OK, we are going to earn a lot with Europe, we're not giving [to them], they will be giving to us. And [in Estonia] I saw a little bit of what Portugal was like 15, 20 years ago and I was able to see that if we can mix it up – all the nationalities, all the countries – that gave me the idea that we would be stronger if we were together."
He found himself very welcome in Tallinn, which further convinced him that bringing people together across Europe was a project worth being part of. "It was totally different from Portugal [but] I said I can connect here, I can be a part of the society, because I was really well received. So I thought OK, maybe if you can all connect with each other we can be stronger."
Given the current situation with Brexit – stark evidence that not all European countries have been feeling so connected – he was clear in his feeling that populism, partially resulting from the expansion of the EU, was to blame.
Lima said: "When the rest of the countries were joining I think the bases were similar. And then we had the eastern countries joining and I think it was not that disruptive.
"But now – as we are facing possibly even Turkey, and others, joining – I think that selfish thing [among] populations is returning and now we're facing populism in Europe, and I think Brexit is a consequence of it."
As Anelise Borges explains, populism is a problem that has been cited by many of the people Euronews has spoken to on the ground in Portugal. She said: "What I've been hearing from people in the streets here in Lisbon is that Brussels is too far away and the political aspect of Europe just doesn't connect to people, that the politics perhaps are not translating enough into their daily lives."
Despite this, Lima is still insistent that joining the EU has been of huge benefit to Portugal, particularly in economic terms. He said: "I think that when Portugal joined the EU, it was a fast track to development. I think it was a huge benefit for us financially, socially, everything to be honest."
But he does admit that it can be hard for people to recognise the influence of EU politics in their everyday lives. "[People] can connect to local government – I know that person, I know what he's able to do for me – and if you go to the national level, all the measures the government is taking; they feel it.
"But the EU has so many levels so when something is decided at the EU level, they don't feel it right away – it's too far."
When asked what he thinks is next for Europe, Lima is clear that the bloc is facing challenges, but confident it will overcome them.
He said: "I don't think that Brexit will ruin the European project. We'll have the measures to try to solve it, to work around it. I think we have two challenges. One is financial – we need to rethink the euro. And the other is to face populism, and I think that Brexit is a wake-up call for that.
"But we can see that it is not only a European problem. You can see worldwide that the right-wing parties are getting many more votes than they used to. You have the American elections, you have the election in Brazil...
"So I think Brexit – it makes me sad – but I think it's all good wake-up call. Although we are all going to pay for it. Unfortunately."