I landed in Lisbon late on a temperate Thursday in January. This was the end of an unusually pan-European week for me. I’d spent the previous two days in a newly provincial-feeling London that was one week away from executing an international retreat driven largely by xenophobia. Before that, I’d been in Berlin, where I’d attended a reception for Angela Merkel, who was being honored by the American Academy for her remarkably steady stewardship of Germany over the past decade and a half, a definitive moment of which was her 2015 decision to admit over a million refugees fleeing war and poverty. I’d set off from my apartment in Paris before dawn on Monday, reaching the airport by way of the Porte de la Chapelle, where there is an astonishing makeshift encampment of persons rendered superfluous by modern statecraft and the vicissitudes of fate, squeezed into the negative space of crisscrossing overpasses and thoroughfares. Parisian motorists have learned to glance away from this familiar sight, which represents the most pitiful compromise between England’s barricaded insularity and Germany’s openness—a lingering testament to France’s unwillingness or inability to come to terms with an ongoing humanitarian disaster.
I’d gone to Portugal to contemplate another approach to one of the defining conundrums of the twenty-first century: Can Western societies, faced with aging and shrinking populations, find a way to integrate increasing numbers of foreigners? Any discussion of the movement of human beings in pursuit of opportunities in faraway lands is fundamentally a conversation about inequality. There is no getting around that—only different ways of acknowledging it or failing to do so. For a brief window in 2015, before the populist backlash to Merkel’s decision kicked in, Germany seemed to approach the issue almost as a matter of karmic obligation. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, long ago outsourced its border control to France (many of those migrants around the Porte de la Chapelle were displaced from “the Jungle” in Calais, a way station to their real destination across the Channel), even as France pushed its border into Libya. What intrigued me about Portugal was the country’s explicit, unequivocal embrace of immigration at every level.
According to legend, it was Odysseus himself who, during his meandering trip around the Mediterranean and past the Pillars of Hercules—guided by a thunderbolt from Zeus—founded Olisipo, the port city on a hill that blossomed into Lisbon. It’s hard to imagine landing ashore a more enviably situated crossroads, linking as it does Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia with Africa, Northern Europe, and the Americas. In the ensuing millennia, Portugal became a seafaring colonial superpower that spread as far as Goa and Macao, Mozambique and Brazil, extracting enormous wealth in the process. In the 1970s, when that empire collapsed alongside António de Oliveira Salazar’s nearly half-century dictatorship—and a million Portuguese nationals descended on the mainland in search of refuge, followed by large numbers of their former subjects—the country was revealed to be orders of magnitude behind its European neighbors economically.
“Portugal never experienced the short-lived, intoxicating heights of financial euphoria” that were felt in other countries on the periphery of Europe at the turn of the new century, Daniel Finn noted in the New Left Review shortly after the fortieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. Nonetheless, “it shared in the crash after 2008 to the full.” The Portuguese economy may not have foundered as spectacularly as that of Greece, but the two countries were neck and neck. “By 2013,” Finn continued,
unemployment had soared to almost 18 percent, and mass emigration was once again a defining feature of Portuguese life. . . . In total, half a million Portuguese left the country between 2008 and 2013, from an active population of about five million.
Faced with this reality, Portugal responded in a spirit of pragmatic openness. “We need more immigration and we won’t tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric,” António Costa, Portugal’s prime minister, declared in 2018. Costa’s open-door policy stood in direct contrast to the call that same year from Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, for a new European alliance to rein in “mass immigration.” No Western European nation today, not even Portugal, is more demographically fragile than Italy—a fact that has fed its reactionary populism—where the birth rate has dipped to 1.34 per woman, making the country an outlier but also a potential harbinger for the rest of the continent. The responses of the two nations, like the scale of influx at their respective borders, could hardly be more dissimilar. Only 1,750 asylum seekers appealed to the Portuguese government in 2017, while the number in Italy in recent years has reached the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps because of this relative scarcity, strong anti-immigrant sentiment never took hold in the Portuguese discourse, allowing Costa to more than double the amount of refugees allocated to Portugal within the European Union. While that new number is just 10,000, his government is actively seeking a total of 75,000 immigrants annually to maintain the country’s population, which hovers around ten million and has a self-annihilating fertility rate of just 1.36 children per woman. Whether the people of Portugal would display similar levels of magnanimity were the country not in need of people, and were it at the forefront of the migration crisis, is beside the point; the fact remains that it is raising quotas at a time when the trend throughout the West as a whole is to drastically reduce them.
It’s in large part a result of this pronounced appetite for new talent, new energy, new life—what used to be thought an especially American understanding of newcomers as assets instead of liabilities—that I’d begun to hear more and more of my friends speak about moving to Lisbon. They enthused about the 280 days of sun per year, the spacious apartments, the good, cheap Douro wine—all that and the eye-opening tax incentives. Starting in 2009, the Portuguese government enacted legislation allowing “non-habitual residents” to live in the country for ten years tax-free on foreign income, pensions, and investments. In 2012, it launched the Golden Visa program, a fast track for investors to obtain a fully valid residency permit—and thus access to the entire Schengen territory—in exchange for a property purchase of 500,000 euros and a minimum stay of seven days a year. The gesture has not gone unnoticed. Today, well-heeled Europeans and Americans are everywhere in Lisbon, as much a part of the landscape as the richly patinated statues of explorers and their patrons looming above the white-tile pavement.
One night, over four-euro glasses of Italian orange wine (half the price of Paris and a third or less of Brooklyn) in a neighborhood with sweeping sea views, north of Alfama, a Swiss friend of a friend explained to me that he lived in Lisbon and taught at a university in Switzerland. Three days of work a month comfortably financed his life in Portugal. The previous afternoon, I’d met a French friend near the Prac a Martim Moniz, a centrally located commercial quarter of Lisbon with enormous Bangladeshi and Chinese populations, reminiscent of Jackson Heights, Queens. A former trader and avid surfer I’d first known in New York a decade and a half ago, he had recently moved to Portugal with his girlfriend, renting out his apartment in Paris and, like many of the expats I would speak with, looking to invest in the mushrooming real estate market. I found him on a mission to source thematic apparel to grant us entry to a Chinese Lunar New Year penthouse party being held later that evening by a recently arrived compatriot. (The French, for better or worse, don’t go in for American-style hand-wringing over matters of cultural appropriation.)
As we darted from shop to shop, dodging a light rain, I was struck by the degree to which two extremely different immigrant communities had woven themselves into the fabric of the city. It was obvious that neither my friend nor the Chinese merchants and their families he spoke with in polyglot fragments were Portuguese in the strict national sense of many of the men and women passing by on the sidewalk—not yet at least—but there was no tragic dimension to that truth. The mathematical reality, which the wider society seemed to accept, was that without a conceptual expansion there wouldn’t be a national identity left to hold on to. Unlike the French or English—or, indeed, Americans—approximately a fifth of Portuguese nationals themselves live outside of the country, similarly tracking the scent of greater prosperity. And so it felt, then—to me at least, and in ways that have been missing from other European contexts with which I’m familiar—that when faced with a demographic necessity the Portuguese had also made a decision. Instead of releasing “one long scream of resentment,” as Tony Judt put it, they collectively exercised a liberating degree of agency over the outcome.
Hannah Arendt, the German émigré and great theorizer of statelessness, was sheltered in Lisbon for three months in 1941, fleeing Nazi-occupied France and awaiting passage to New York. This was an exit point common to Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Otto von Hapsburg, and many others. The city’s prominence in this drama of escape was in large measure a result of the fact that Portugal’s official nationalism was never rooted in notions of biology or race. Salazar himself wrote a book, How to Raise a State, in which he rejected the ideology behind the Nuremberg Laws as pagan and antihuman, leading the Argentine historian Avraham Milgram to reflect that modern anti-Semitism failed “to establish even a toehold in Portugal.”
Leaving Portugal was another story, and the Kafkaesque obstacles European Jews encountered attempting to gain entry to the West prefigured the difficulties African and Syrian refugees face today. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt called statelessness “the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history.” With extraordinary prescience, she added, “Every political event since the end of the First World War inevitably added a new category of those who lived outside the pale of the law.” The consequences could not be graver. For Arendt, “only the loss of a polity itself expels [man] from humanity.” This is what is so horrific about the plight of those men—they are almost always men—caught in limbo and limping into traffic to plead against rolled-up windows on the outskirts of Paris, and to a lesser degree throughout the city. Portugal is not the world. It is a small country long ago humbled. But it is also an exciting new laboratory of migration, providing insight into what is possible when a society doesn’t take ideas of national purity too seriously. Walking around the Praca Martim Moniz, I was reminded of another immigrant community I’d visited recently—Prato, in Italy, which had left an enduring impression.
On a drizzly afternoon a few years ago, I’d boarded a commuter train and made the twenty-minute trip from the Renaissance splendor of Florence to the drab Italian textile capital, which seemed to be a real-world instantiation of the far right’s wildest dystopian nightmares. Exiting the train station in Prato, I saw a handful of Americans on study abroad but few native Italians. One, a homeless man, begged passersby for a cappuccino. East and South Asians and Africans went about their business in Italian as well as any number of other languages I couldn’t register. The streets were mostly empty, but as I crossed the Ponte alla Vittoria into town, a young seemingly Chinese man sheathed in a stiff leather jacket and the self-assurance of Fonzarelli ripped past on a sparkling Harley-Davidson.
It was a holiday, the first of May, and the city center was shuttered. I walked up the Via San Vincenzo, which was littered with vacant storefronts, until it met Santo Beijing, the second largest Chinatown in Europe, after that of Paris. In a city with a total population of under two hundred thousand, there were now some fifty thousand immigrants from China, mostly working in garment factories. The streets bustled with commerce, every storefront was occupied, and every sign flashed aperto. Late-model Mercedes, BMWs, and the odd muscle car idled outside travel agencies and casinos with signs written exclusively in Chinese. Large Chinese families shopped for groceries and filled the restaurants for lunch. The only place where I witnessed any mixing among native Italians and immigrants was in a tobacco shop with an adjoining room for betting on sports, where a dozen old, exhausted-looking Italian men flipped through newspapers and watched moto-racing and soccer on Samsung flatscreens. While I drank an espresso, a procession of young Chinese men and women popped in and out to buy things, but never to linger.
With only eight babies born for every one thousand residents, the native Italian population is in rapid decline. Some demographers project that Italians of indigenous descent will constitute half the nation’s population by the end of the century. With nothing in Italy like the official Portuguese desire for immigrants, near-identical demographic shifts took on a completely different texture. Mass immigration is—and will increasingly be—a fact of life in modern Western societies. Yet there are a variety of ways to respond to it. What can seem a collective defeat in one context can seem a triumph in another.
On the Sunday afternoon before I flew home from Lisbon, my French friend texted me to meet him for lunch at the beach in Caparica, a twenty-five-minute drive outside the city. I ordered an Uber and was driven by a young man fluent in English for a fare of fifteen euros. I’d inadvertently taken him so far away from his customary routes that he asked whether I minded if he called his mother to let her know he’d be stopping by to eat with her. It was sixty degrees and sunny when I joined a large table overlooking a wide white beach and the Atlantic Ocean, its waves rolling in forcefully and brimming with wet-suited surfers. There was a French family, a French-English family, and a French-American family. Everyone seemed to work in the film and fashion industries for foreign clients. None had lived in Lisbon prior to September, but all had enrolled their children in what they described as high-quality international schools with instruction in three languages. A dark-haired French child of around eleven who had adapted well translated the Portuguese menu for her parents. The English father told me that full-time nannies in Portugal were half the price of Paris.
I remarked to my friend that it was as if they had found a cheat code in the video game of life—work and real estate abroad, euros flowing in, a sun-drenched tableau vivant of benevolent non-habitual residents willing and able to stimulate a hospitable host country that was self-aware enough to know it needed them. Yet—and this was crucial—that host country was also morally ambitious enough not to stop there. As I said goodbye and ordered another Uber, I thought of something else the Swiss professor had told me. “There’s this wave of people,” he said, “but they are not going to stay. Lisbon is not actually that cosmopolitan.” Scanning the beach one last time, I wondered why it couldn’t become just that. A society genuinely deserving of that distinction, one that isn’t immobilized by narrow definitions of who does and doesn’t belong, has to start somewhere.