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Talking Tomatoes with EU, Portugal Says No More ‘Good Pupil’

May 1, 1996 GMT

LISBON, Portugal (AP) _ When it comes to defending its farmers’ tomatoes, Portugal’s new government has a message for the European Union: No more compliance.

Although Portugal’s new Socialist government says it wants to pursue closer European integration and monetary union, battle lines are being drawn on the EU’s plans to cut Portugal’s tomato production.

Former EU chief Jacques Delors once called Portugal a ``good pupil″ for its textbook obedience with EU directives, a label which former Premier Anibal Cavaco Silva frequently used to reassure voters the country was on the right track.

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But now, the Socialists, who ended Cavaco Silva’s 10-year rule in elections last October, say the label is out-of-date.

The tomato squabble comes as Portugal is taking stock of what a decade of EU membership has meant for what was once Western Europe’s poorhouse.

Billions of dollars in EU contributions to modernize poorer member nations helped revitalize Portugal’s slothful economy, trigger a foreign investment boom and push the nation ahead of Greece in per capita production.

Signs of modernity abound. New highways blanket the country, bank machines are found on many corners and flashy shopping malls dot major cities.

But in exchange, Portugal has decimated its traditional sectors, which _ like wine, grain and dairy production _ were deemed as being in excess in the EU.

``As a result of our entry into the European Union, we have a serious crisis in agriculture, in fishing, and in the more obsolete sectors of industry,″ outgoing President Mario Soares told The Associated Press.

Trawler after trawler of a once-mighty fishing fleet was scrapped, mines were closed and traditional crops were uprooted. Much of the EU’s contributions aimed at modernizing those industries was misspent.

Cavaco, a free-marketeer, had promised that new, high-tech industry would substitute obsolete sectors.

But the flight from agriculture was so swift that industry was unable to keep up.

Between 1985 and 1994, the percentage of Portuguese working on the land plummeted from 24 percent to 11 percent, agricultural production fell from 7.5 percent of gross national product to 5 percent and agricultural exports slipped from 10 percent to 7 percent.

With jobs in farming disappearing, people flocked to the cities. Unemployment almost doubled to 7 percent in four years. Crime and drug abuse also went up, especially in the hurriedly built suburbs.

Now, the EU’s plan to cut Portugal’s tomato production by nearly 20 percent has Portugal’s Socialist administration stewing.

The plan to slice into Portugal’s production of 900,000 tons of fresh, canned and processed tomatoes could mean 10 of the country’s 16 processing plants would have to shut down.

One in four tomato farms would no longer be profitable, according to the Portuguese Farmers’ Confederation.

Agriculture Minister Fernando Gomes da Silva told EU counterparts the tomato reform is ``against the legitimate interests of my country and, as such, completely unacceptable.″

Francisco Manuel Seixas da Costa, Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, warned that a different kind of student is in the EU classroom.

``This government’s attitude is going to be frontal and open,″ Seixas da Costa said. ``There will be none of the subordination implied by the term `pupil.‴

Portugal’s new stance means the government and the EU will have to negotiate a solution, adding yet another complication to efforts to integrate Europe, and from a country where compliance _ until now _ had been a foregone conclusion.