By BARRY HATTON
LISBON, Portugal (AP) â¿¿ Three times over the past year, the 13 judges of Portugal's Constitutional Court have solemnly filed into a tall-ceilinged room in Lisbon's 19th-century Palacio Ratton and slammed the brakes on key steps in the country's attempts to overhaul its economy.
Dressed in full-length black robes, the judges ruled that the government's plans to cut spending by more than 3 billion euros ($4 billion) were unconstitutional because they would infringe on workers' rights, including equality and job security.
Since coming to power two years ago, the government hasn't won a single economic argument with the court and has had to scramble to make up the budget shortfall, largely through higher taxes. Those increases have cost many people the equivalent of more than a month's pay this year.
The rulings have tried the patience of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, who is desperately trying to conclude Portugal's three-year bailout program. He has urged the judges to show "more common sense" and take into account the country's economic plight. Portuguese government attorneys are now scouring law books, looking for a way through the constitutional minefield.
The repeated rebuffs highlight some of the difficulties encountered by debt-heavy southern European governments as they attempt to jettison costly entitlements and safeguards that were adopted last century.
For Portugal, which needed a 78 billion euros ($103 billion) rescue in 2011, the problem is becoming acute. Under the terms of the bailout agreement, it is supposed to get its finances back on a sustainable footing by the middle of next year. But that goal is increasingly in doubt as the center-right coalition government has missed deficit targets, and Portugal may need more help.
Though possessing one of the smallest economies among the 17 countries sharing the euro currency, its constitutional predicament could keep a fire under the bloc's debt crisis.