Beyond the Horizon: Portugal’s Plan for Atlantic Expansion

Coastline of Nazaré facing the Atlantic Ocean
Image courtesy of Johara Meyer

David Figueira Bourton explores the consequences of Portugal’s lost empire, and the economic strategies set to reinstate its influence on the political map.

During the European Age of Discovery, an era that marked the start of globalisation, Portugal was one of the pioneering powers establishing trading posts (feitorias) in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and South America. In the 15th Century, navigators such as Vasco da Gama inspired Portugal’s intimate connection with the Atlantic by discovering various ocean trading routes thanks to a wealth of knowledge in navigation and geography; one such example being the voyage by da Gama linking Portugal to India via passage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. Yet, with the same destiny as many other colonial powers, the decline of the Portuguese Empire would eventually occur. Nonetheless, the ‘empire’ as Portugal beyond the sea (Portugal Ultramaritimo), would linger well beyond the Second World War. Only the degradation of political power in the Portuguese metropole that culminated in the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Lisbon, abolishing the authoritarian dictatorship of Estado Novo, would end the Portuguese Colonial War that began in 1961 and lead to the independence of the last colonies in Africa.

Yet the push for independence by its colonies had an isolating effect on Portugal after the Second World War, as the country was at odds with decolonisation movements. The international community denounced Portugal to settle independence with its colonies, and the country turned inward-looking. Internally, the use of conscription during the war led to illegal emigration of men from Portugal to countries such as France and the US. The amalgamation of these impacts meant that Portugal became increasingly underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of Europe. After the 1974 revolution, the country slowly began to reconstruct its political and economic links with Europe and the rest of the world. This shift would conclude with Portugal joining the European Union (then European Economic Community) in 1986. 

However, in the 21st Century, Portugal still finds itself geographically and politically on the peripheries of Europe made up of three distinct territories: continental Portugal, Madeira and the Açores. Portugal has continued to face a number of economic downturns, such as the drastic economic crisis that ensued between 2010 and 2014 due to the eurozone debt crisis. As a result, the government in 2011 signed on for an EU and IMF bailout programme worth €78 billion. This proceeded with a period of strict austerity measures by the state contingent in the bailout programme. 

In May 2014, Portugal exited from the bailout programme just as positive economic growth in the country came to fruition. This period of economic struggle would be a turning point for policy makers in Lisbon, who began rethinking Portugal’s national strategy away from continental Europe, and looking outwards for economic stability. Thus, in the shadow of its former self, it became a fundamental goal to reinvigorate a modern maritime identity of Portugal tied to the Atlantic, the ocean that had once propagated a culture of sailors and explorers with eyes fixed on distant land and continents.

Therefore, the Mar-Portugal Plan was set up by the government as an action plan to build upon the maritime heritage of the nation with a modern outlook for innovation and entrepreneurialism. The focus of the government action plan looks to promote and develop the competitiveness of Portugal’s maritime economy in the Atlantic Ocean to accommodate for both European and worldwide markets. If successful, the government hopes to raise the proportion of its economy through the Atlantic to 50% of its total GDP. The key tenet of the government action plan is Portugal’s claim to an extended continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles of its coastline.

Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the territorial waters of Portugal and its autonomous regions extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from the coastal baseline. Within these waters, Portugal has full sovereignty from the air space above to below the surface of the water – although foreign ships are allowed to pass through under the restrictions of ‘innocent passage’ stated in Article 19. Moreover, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in Portugal’s three territories extends to 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from the coast. In the EEZ, Portugal has exclusive rights to usage and licensing of natural resources below the surface of the sea for activities such as mining, but the surface water remains under the jurisdiction of international waters. Hence, this is why geostrategic islands such as those being artificially constructed by China in the South China Sea, are so important in claiming access to certain territories and resources. Portugal has the fourth largest EEZ in the European Union at 1.7 million km2 with the largest EEZ of its territories being the archipelago of the Açores with an area of 953,667 km2.

On 11 May 2009, in accordance with Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the government made a claim to extend the limits of Portugal’s continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline, up to 350 nautical miles (648 km). In April 2005, the government in Lisbon set up the Task Group for the Extension of the Continental Shelf to prepare a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf – over 400 days of effective surveying were implemented to collect and analyse data on the adjacent continental shelf to Portugal created through the divergent processes of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The UN is still processing the claim, but if validated, Portugal could more than double its territory to 3.8 million km2 by claiming an additional 2.1 million km2 as part of its continental shelf. Portugal would become one of the largest countries in the world, though only 3% of its territory would be terrestrial. The map below highlights the claim for the extended continental shelf.

Map of Portugal’s Extended Continental Shelf Claim

The claimed extended continental shelf would contain less exclusive rights than the EEZ and territorial waters. Portugal would only have exclusive rights to the resources found on the ocean floor and subsoil, but not resources within the water. So activities such as mining and drilling in the claimed extended continental shelf would be exclusive to Portugal, whilst fishing would be accessible to anyone. 

In the Mar-Portugal Plan, it is this increase in the size and geography of potential territory in the Atlantic which Portugal views as fundamental to establishing future economic prosperity. By gaining rights to vast areas of seabed such as those found near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge close to the Azores archipelago, the country has potential exclusive access to large quantities of yet to be discovered mineral deposits which could prevent future geopolitical disputes over ownership. Additionally, the EEZ of Portugal is strategically positioned on the Atlantic Front which contains the essential passages for equatorial and meridian shipping. The government hopes to maximize the trade potential of the country by constructing ports, capable of carrying inter-continental cargo connecting with the remainder of Europe; along with new shipyards and ports to offer services such as shipbuilding. This would ultimately assist in strengthening Portugal’s soft power by becoming the gateway between Europe and the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, the potential success of the Mar-Portugal Plan is still predicated on the validation of the claim to the extended continental shelf as well as development in technology and human capital. To achieve such an extensive goal, Portugal will not only need the structure of a coherent economic plan, but also an ideological shift to garner support of a revived maritime identity. I have seen from personal experience the efforts made in the country to rekindle the culture of Portugal as a sea-faring nation, across various forms of media, and met people who are still resentful of the stringent economic measures which the international financial bodies imposed on the country in recent years, so a change in mindset may not be difficult. Therefore the future of the country could be a return to some of its past mindset, asserting Portugal’s future autonomy on the peripheries of Europe towards the Atlantic, beyond the horizon.

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