April 24, 2011
From blanket health insurance to long vacations and early retirement, the cozy social benefits that have been a way of life in Western Europe since World War II increasingly appear to be luxuries the continent can no longer afford.
Particularly since the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, benefits have begun to stagnate or shrink in the face of exploding government deficits. In effect, the continent has reversed a half-century history of continual improvements that made Western Europe the envy of many and attracted millions of immigrants from less fortunate societies.
In the new reality, workers have been forced to accept salary freezes, decreased hours, postponed retirements and health-care reductions. Employees at Fiat’s historic Mirafiori plant in Turin, rolling back a tradition of union privileges, even pledged to cut back on the number of workers who call in sick when the local soccer team has a match.
Unlike in the United States, where conservatives are so resolved to cut spending that they threatened a government shutdown, Western Europe’s generous welfare programs had generally been embraced by the right as well as the left. Against that background, the new wave of cutbacks seems to signal a dramatic shift in attitude toward benefits that many Europeans had come to see as a birthright and that politicians of any stripe could challenge only at the risk of their careers.