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Unwise Spending Exposes Europe's Economic Errors

With EU aid looking like a free lunch, Portugal neglected to modernize, and the excessive emphasis on infrastructure had a negative impact on its economy. The upshot: Due to low productivity, low education levels and low technology, Portugal languished in the first years of the new century with average annual growth below 1 percent. It has now gone into reverse with its third recession in four years amid a mountain of debt.

The windfall produced notorious excesses in the Madeira Islands. But just two years ago, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister, touted the region as a model of EU growth. The aid for years delivered spectacular returns, helping lift the standard of living above that in Italy and just lower than in France. Thirty years earlier it was one of the bloc's five poorest regions.

The glut of aid invited extravagance as Jardim, Madeira's president, rode a wave of popularity that has made him one of Europe's longest-serving political leaders. Plaques saying he inaugurated ocean swimming pools, libraries and health centers punctuate any trip around this balmy, semitropical island of deep gorges and thick forest.

The wisdom of Madeira's lavish, EU-sponsored spending is now in question as it wobbles on the edge of its own fiscal cliff. White elephants include a ⿬38 million harbor that sits empty, its entrance full of silt; a business park built on a misty, remote hillside for ⿬2.5 million that lies barren; and a ⿬670,000 oceanside helipad where, locals say, no helicopter has ever landed.

Jardim is unapologetic. On the sidelines of the recent inauguration of the 580-meter-(1,900-feet) cliff-top viewing point at Cabo Girao, he continued to preach the benefits of past EU policy and brushed off talk of financial folly.

"In small territories different criteria have to be used, which in this case is to continue the (financial) support for the creation of infrastructure because that creates jobs," he said.

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