State of emergency: What now?

On the 18th of March of this year, Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared the state of emergency, immediately, to the extent of all Portuguese territory, following other European countries that also opted to declare it, such as Spain, France, Italy and Germany (to name a few from the total of 25 countries that already announced it worldwide).

Since November 1975, after a revolutionary attempt from communist forces to implement a far-left dictatorship, the State of Emergency hasn’t been declared in Portugal. 45 years elapsed and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal was forced to announce the State of Emergency, in order to restrict the spread of the virus.


What measures can Portugal take to face national catastrophes?

There are 4 mechanisms, consecrated in the Portuguese Law, in order to deal with national catastrophes. From the least to the most severe, we have the state of alert, last used in the summer of 2019 during the protests of truck drivers of hazardous content, which only means that national civil protection and national security forces are ready to attain any request from the government. The state of public calamity, announced two weeks ago by the municipality of Ovar, implies a reduction of economic activity, limitations to the number of inhabitants in public places and the establishment of a safety perimeter. Lastly, the two most severe mechanisms, the state of emergency and the state of siege.

After all, what does the state of emergency imply? What’s the constitutional interpretation? What are the boundaries that define it and that distinguishes it from the state of siege?

What is the state of emergency?

The state of emergency allows the government to suspend certain rights, freedoms and guarantees in order to deal with an exceptional situation. In Portugal, the state of emergency is declared by the President, initially requiring permission from Parliament and then approval from the Council of Ministers. According to the Constitution, it cannot last more than 15 days (although it can be renovated) and it cannot suspend certain rights, such as the right to life or the right to defend oneself in court.

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In this particular emergency – an epidemic – there are two particular rights whose suspension could be useful: The right to free movement and the right to private initiative. Suspending the right to free movement allows the government to impose quarantine and curfews, to forbid people from leaving their houses for non-essential trips (or to forbid elderly people from leaving their houses for any reason), and to limit entry and exit in Portugal, by cancelling flights to and from critical countries and controlling the border. Suspending the right to private initiative allows the government, among other things, to forbid non-essential commercial establishments from opening, to force essential ones (such as pharmacies, supermarkets or medical supplies factories) to stay open, and to take control of private companies (for example, to temporarily integrate private hospitals in the public healthcare system). The state of emergency declared in Portugal also suspends the freedom of assembly, allowing the government to forbid large public gatherings such as protests, concerts or religious ceremonies.

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Criticism

Some have opposed the declaration of the state of emergency, fearing that the President is opening a dangerous precedent for the suspension of rights and freedoms. These worries are not unwarranted: historically, there are many incidents in several different countries of the state of emergency being abused. For example, in Germany between the two world wars, the state of emergency was declared quite often, usually by governments who didn’t have a majority in Parliament and used the state of emergency to legislate without democratic control. This culminated when, after a fire destroyed the German Parliament, Adolf Hitler blamed the fire on communist rebels and used it as an excuse to declare the state of emergency, imposing the dictatorial regime that lasted until the end of WWII. This is only one of many historical examples of the state of emergency being the start of a dictatorship. While it is difficult to argue that Portugal is currently facing any risk of that nature, these historical examples are the reason why many people are very cautious about supporting the declaration of the state of emergency.

State of siege

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some have claimed that, in Portugal’s current situation, a state of emergency is not enough, and a state of siege should be declared. The state of siege is one degree of severity above the state of emergency. According to Portuguese Law, the state of emergency can be declared due to any public calamity or threat of public calamity, while the state of siege can only be declared in the event of acts of force (such as military invasions) or rebellions. In a state of emergency, rights and freedoms can only be partially suspended, while in a state of siege they can be completely suspended – for example, the current state of emergency suspends the right to strike only for workers in healthcare and vital sectors of the economy; in a state of siege, all strikes could be forbidden. In a state of emergency, the powers of civil authorities can be reinforced, and the armed forces can be tasked with supporting those authorities; in a state of siege, all police forces are put under the authority of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, and all civil administrations must provide the armed forces any information they request.

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Portugal is facing one of the moments of greatest uncertainty in its modern history.

Fighting an unknown enemy poses difficult challenges and raises important questions. Only in the end will the country be capable of scrutinising the choices made and to discuss a future approach towards a similar crisis. Until then, we shall stand as one.


Sources: Observador,Jornal Sol, ECO

Portuguese Law (in Portuguese):

Constituição da República Portuguesa (Portuguese Constitution), namely articles 19 and 138 

Regime do Estado de Sítio e do Estado de Emergência – Lei n.º 44/86, de 30 de setembro 

Decreto do Presidente da República n.º 14-A/2020 



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