On a sunny winter’s afternoon in the Praça do Giraldo, the main square of the city of Évora in Portugal, locals sat enjoying the mild weather as they sipped cafezinhos (strong shots of espresso) at curb-side tables. The strains of a violin played by a street musician reverberated nearby and students from the Universidade de Évora gave the ancient surroundings a youthful buzz.

With a population of nearly 57,000 and 5000 years of history (it was mentioned by the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986), Évora contains stunning Roman ruins with a charming old quarter, and serves as the unofficial capital of Portugal’s southern Alentejo region, a lush though economically underdeveloped area famous for its wine.

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Beyond tourists coming to enjoy a tipple from one of the nearby vineyards or the region’s fortifying, hearty cuisine at bistros such as the famous Café Alentejo, Évora has also of late attracted a different kind of newcomer in its role as one of the country’s aerospace and business services centres. 

Fertile soil

Beyond the city’s old historic core, at a gleaming new industrial park, the face of the new Évora begins to emerge. 

“Portugal wanted to have an aeronautical cluster in this region, and it has been a great experience in terms of the willingness of people to learn,” says Christian Santos, general manager at a facility run by French precision engineering company Mecachrome. After laying its first stone in 2015, the facility now employs 150 people, producing a variety of complex, highly sensitive parts for aeroplanes. Nearly 85% of local employees come from Évora’s renowned professional training centre, the Instituto do Emprego e Formação Profissional.

“There are good professionals here, the learning curve is very steep and we balance it with experts coming from France,” says Mr Santos as he surveys Mecachrome’s facilities, where production spans everything from the reception of raw materials to the re-exporting of the finished product. "You need the right earth to make a project such as this grow,” he adds.

In the same complex where Mecachrome locates its offices, the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Embraer employs 450 people in a sprawling facility. 

“Our drive was to have a bigger footprint in Europe,” says Embraer administrator Yuri Lopes Capi. “We understood that Portugal was most suitable to implement the manufacturing side of that. The country’s policies have supported more development in regions such as Alentejo, and we have a very good relationship with the local authorities as they are very supportive.”

The end of austerity

As Mr Lopes suggests, the courting of foreign investment has been a cross-party affair in Portugal. Évora mayor Carlos Pinto de Sá was elected at the head of a ticket on behalf of the Coligação Democrática Unitária, a coalition of the communists and the greens.

Since Portugal emerged from its battering after the worldwide economic downturn a decade ago, the government of prime minister António Costa of the ruling Socialist Party, which has been in office since November 2015, has gradually scaled back austerity measures and sought instead to aggressively court foreign investment. The Agência para o Investimento e Comércio Externo de Portugal is the government body established to attract foreign businesses to the country and support their work. 

The government has sought to lure investors not just to the country's two largest population centres, Lisbon and Porto, but also to smaller cities such as Évora. Portugal is currently ranked rated 29th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index and as the world’s third most peaceful country (after Iceland and New Zealand) by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index.

Portugal’s economy went from a 3.2% contraction in 2012 to 2.8% growth in 2017, and is predicted to show 1.8% growth for 2018, according to the European Commission. Surveys consistently show that the population remains generally positive regarding EU membership, and elections in October 2019 are expected to see the Socialists and the centre-right Partido Social Democrata again vie for power, the extremes of left and right having thus far found little traction in Portugal.

Leading location

The development of Évora’s investment infrastructure has not solely been the realm of aerospace industries, however. French multinational professional services and business consulting company Capgemini has been operating a branch out of the city since April 2018, and currently employs about 80 people.

“Évora is only 90 minutes away from Lisbon by car, and it has excellent infrastructure, communication networks and a world-class technical education,” says Paulo Fão, Capgemini’s senior sales and partner operations manager. “Here we find a strong combination of expertise, experience and many innovative and technological companies.”

As Mr Fão takes visitors out to Capgemini’s rooftop veranda, which boasts a sweeping view of the undulating Alentejo countryside, it seems clear that, despite its many aesthetic charms, companies are realising that stunning Évora is more than just a pretty face.