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Europe Talks Austerity

  • David Dyar

Austerity is on everyone's mind as European governments -- one after another -- introduce spending cuts to get deficits under control and shore up the beleaguered Euro. Most experts agree belt-tightening is needed, but it's not always popular and comes at a cost, often to social benefits.

Austerity is the order of the day and it's not always popular as deadly riots in Greece recently proved.

Still, parliaments across Europe are debating how to reduce deficits and where to cut. And that includes Europe's economic giant.

The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed on budget cuts and new taxes to bring Germany's deficit within the European Union limit of 3 percent of GDP. "We have difficult times. We cannot afford everything we wish for if we want to create the future," she said.

The aim is to save nearly $100 billion by 2014.

Europe's tilt toward austerity is driven by the current financial crisis, says political analyst Cornelius Adebahr, of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "We've seen the example of Greece, where there was no more trust in the Greek government's ability to cut down the budget, to contain the debt or to keep it under control," he said.

The Greek government's near default on its loans triggered the financial crisis and also threatened the euro and countries using it.

Germany is a major part of the European Union bail-out plan for Greece. While its economy is in much better shape than that of Greece, many Germans seem to agree austerity is needed.

"We have to start and not postpone it again," one German said. "I think everyone should do their part, including those who are better off financially," said another.

Germany has traditionally been fiscally conservative and Germans are viewed as prudent with their money.

And with budget cuts on everyone's agenda, the question now is where will they come from and will they endanger the German social safety net.

Germany -- like most of Europe -- has a broad safety net: benefits for the poor and unemployed, universal health care and good pensions.

Many would not want to give them up. But Adebahr says many young people do not believe they will get those same benefits. "If you ask them whether they will receive a pension and what age, they say "I'm not sure whether I will be in the position of pensioners of today," he said.

Jobless and health care benefits have already been reduced. Plus, the retirement age has been raised.

But, many Germans say austerity must not cut too deep into their cherished welfare state.

Artur Fischer, head of the Berlin Stock Exchange, is one of them. "I want to live in a country where people have a minimum to live somewhat of a happy life. Therefore I am willing to give away, through taxes and through other means, part of my income as a person and a lot of other people think the same," he said.

In general, Germans want the social contract maintained and are willing to sacrifice to keep it - for themselves and future generations.

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