Lisbon — Portugal's seven-year bid to join the European Community is like its program of national motorway construction - urgently necessary, repeatedly delayed, torturously slow, and always subject to available funds.
But, as with their deficient road system, the Portuguese have shown considerable patience with the complexities of becoming part of this much-desired European club. This patience has its limits, however, and there are signs that with the latest and most serious setback to the entry deadline of Jan. 1, 1986, anger and frustration are growing here.
Finance Minister Ernani Lopes, responsible for EC negotiations, made it clear at the weekend that he would not return to Brussels for any more talks until European officials produced concrete progress on remaining dossiers.
These include wine and olive oil quotas, fishing agreements, and social security benefits for Portuguese workers already in the EC.
But what really concerns the Portuguese is the dawning realization that despite Lisbon's unstinted efforts to keep the two membership applications separate, Brussels has decided that Portugal and Spain will enter together or not at all.
No one fears anything from Portugal's small and underdeveloped economy, while quite the opposite is true of the strength of the neighboring Spanish giant. For this reason Portugal has been at pains to commit Europe to Lisbon's accession, whatever the outcome of Spanish negotiations.
There was a time when this tactic seemed to be working, but now Portuguese officials fear that with the Community's worsening internal crisis, the Europeans have irretrievably hooked Portugal onto Spain, subjecting it to the penalties arising from the inevitable delay in Spanish entry negotiations.
Politically this could be devastating for the ruling Socialist-led coalition, which has staked its reputation and that of Prime Minister Mario Soares on joining the Community by January 1986.
Furthermore, the ensuing tensions are affecting bilateral relations on the Iberian peninsula. Historically these have never been very good, but they were given a boost a year ago when a leadership summit of the two governments pledged a fresh start and the banishing of 600 years of mutual mistrust and disregard.
At present these efforts are threatened by renewed clashes over Spanish fishing rights in Portuguese waters. An EC-inspired chill is thus setting in over peninsular relations - a development with implications for regional security, given the importance of the area to NATO and the United States.
It is not clear whether Portugal would ever go so far as to withdraw its application to join the EC, but Prime Minister Soares has hinted more than once that this is in the cards if never-ending delays continue.
Lisbon's alternatives are limited, although Portugal likes to pretend it could be content to hitch its star to the United States, Japan, and Portugal's former African colonies if the EC link fell through.