published Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Economic crisis threatens Europe’s way of life

The NTV high speed train Italo waits to depart Rome's Tiburtina railway station on its inaugural trip to Naples. Fundamental change is under way in Europe as the economic crisis bites and voters revolt at the polls. An entire way of life is under threat as hard times take a toll in areas that have long been central to the continentís view of itself: state protections; sophisticated lifestyle; shiny infrastructure; health care; a secure retirement; and more broadly, a sense of being the worldís elite.
The NTV high speed train Italo waits to depart Rome's Tiburtina railway station on its inaugural trip to Naples. Fundamental change is under way in Europe as the economic crisis bites and voters revolt at the polls. An entire way of life is under threat as hard times take a toll in areas that have long been central to the continentís view of itself: state protections; sophisticated lifestyle; shiny infrastructure; health care; a secure retirement; and more broadly, a sense of being the worldís elite.
Photo by Associated Press.

By KARL RITTER

Associated Press

Elections in France and Greece reflect the anger and disillusionment coming to the surface across Europe as an entire way of life is challenged. The European landscape is undergoing profound change — from its sophisticated lifestyle to its cherished welfare benefits like guaranteed health care and a secure retirement, to a sense among many Europeans of being the world’s elite.

Here are some of the ways the continent is grappling with change in this time of economic crisis.

— THE WELFARE STATE:

Six-week paid vacations. Retirement in your early 60s. Generous benefits for the sick and unemployed.

The cradle-to-grave welfare system that was a pillar of European life for decades is being scaled back from one austerity package to another. Retirement ages are being raised past 65 in many countries. The Swedish prime minister even toyed with the idea of making people work until 75.

Europeans are not about to give up on their fabled social model, but they can expect a slimmed-down version in the future.

“I don’t think the social welfare system is being dismantled,” says Rebecca Adler-Nissen, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for European Politics. “It’s more about what we can afford in the future.”

— LIFESTYLE:

Bon-vivants or loafers? When it comes to work-life balance, Europeans either got it totally right or lost their minds completely, depending on whom you ask.

But economic realities are now forcing the most stressed countries to question some deeply ingrained habits. Long lunches are on the wane across the continent. Spain is considering a change that takes aim at the habit of employees turning up for work and immediately going down to the closest coffee shop for a half-hour or more breakfast.

Another sacred cow being targeted is the habit of making a long weekend out of it when a holiday falls on a Thursday. In Ireland, the crisis has had an impact on legendary pub traditions. The Irish increasingly socialize at home, avoiding pubs where beer and other drink prices are several times higher than what’s offered by the German discount supermarkets now proliferating in Ireland.

— POLITICAL EXTREMES:

The National Front in France. Golden Dawn in Greece. The Freedom Party of the Netherlands. The True Finns. Across Western Europe, and in parts of the East, the far-right is on the march.

Europe has deep traditions of tolerance and pluralism with roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. But European history also offers the most extreme examples of racist nationalism. While outright Nazis are a tiny minority in Europe today, the economic crisis has fueled forces on the right opposed to immigrants and the very idea of European integration.

On the other end of the spectrum, left-wing parties who see the European Union as a capitalist superstate suppressing the working classes have made gains in France, Spain, Greece and Denmark, among other countries.

— EUROPE IN THE WORLD:

The world still admires French art, Italian food and Spanish soccer. But in the global economy, sluggish Europe is looking less attractive when compared to fast-growing emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil.

That’s a blow to the ego of a continent accustomed to seeing itself as having a central place in history. The European Union’s seemingly endless debt crisis has seriously damaged confidence in its common currency project. Bickering between nations has also tarnished Europe’s self-image as a role model of how nations can come together to build peace and prosperity.

— CULTURE AND THE ARTS:

Don’t worry, the debt crisis isn’t going to shut down the Louvre in Paris or the Vienna State Opera House. Culture will play a central role in European life for the foreseeable future.

But how much of it should be financed by the government? That’s a question being asked in many European capitals as budgets are being tightened.

As part of its austerity drive, Spain’s new conservative government has eliminated the Culture Ministry as a self-standing institution, merging it with education and sports. A program to subsidize Spanish cinema — which made a name for itself around the world with Oscar-winning directors such as Pedro Almodovar — has been scrapped.

In Sweden, the government has decided to gradually dismantle a subsidy program that provided lifelong income guarantees for artists seen as particularly important to Swedish culture.

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Daniel Woolls in Madrid and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

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