Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine

On Tuesday 12 October, huge strikes are scheduled to take place across France. On the same day, a right-wing party in Spain called España 2000 is planning a demonstration of Spanish-ness in the face of what it sees as reprehensible attacks on the nation by the present government. And in the UK, there has been widespread condemnation of the Government’s ‘austerity’ measures, such as the recent announcement to cut child benefit for those earning in the top tax bracket.

It seems that the peoples of Europe are muscling up and finding their voice to respond en masse to governments’ differing plans to address budget deficits and economic shortfalls. On Friday 8 October, the French Senate approved a preliminary section of more wide-ranging pension reforms. But rather than being a trivial amendment buried deep within some unimportant preamble – the Upper House has given the thumbs-up to raising the retirement age by two years, from 60 to 62. This has not gone down well in France and unions look set to go ahead with an unlimited walk-out in protest at the changes from this Tuesday. There were well-attended strikes when this bill was first floated but the politicians in Paris have continued with their reforms in the face of popular denouncements. But these changes are needed.

Across the Channel, the Government is four years further on with its retirement age reform plans (from 65 to 66 from 2016) and it has also met with militant unions and a vocal general public. Yet people are living longer and funding their pensions costs more. Providing for them is made even more difficult when, as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne wrote simply – ‘There’s no money left!’ But alterations to the age from when Europeans can begin withdrawing a state pension are not new – in 2007, Germany passed a law raising the age to 67. Looking further afield, the Australian government plumped for 67 when its proposal got through parliament there last year. There has been criticism that the right-wing government in Paris and the Conservative-led coalition in London are, on one hand, enjoying swinging the axe and concocting a painful dosage for the public (particularly the Roma in France), whilst on the other hand steering clear of having to taste their remedies themselves. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a fan of saying that ‘we are all in this together’ but critics highlight the personal fortunes that he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, enjoy.

But it is not only conservatism which is cutting public services and tightening the belt. In Spain, the socialist government is having to cut spending as well. It provoked large-scale protests when it announced the proposal to cut public sector salaries by 5% across the board from next year. In addition, like the Conservative plan in the UK, it has approved a drop in MPs’ pay, although the Spanish figure of 15% is more impressive than Cameron’s 5%. There are other similarities. Zapatero has committed to scrapping the ‘Baby Cheque’ policy, which saw mothers able to apply for a €2,500 grant (rising to €3,500 for the ‘numerous families’) and the Coalition has planned to reform the child benefit system in the UK. Although unpopular, both the Conservative-dominated government in the UK and the Socialist leadership in Madrid have realised the unsustainability of such benefit policies.

And just as Labour will want to step into the leftist opposition breech in debating the cuts in the UK, so the right-wing political classes have been venting the fury at what they see as a deliberate debilitation of the power and role of the central Spanish state by Zapatero’s government. Right-wing party España 2000 have complained about the number of immigrants in a Spain where jobs are scarce and they have organised a protest for the coming Tuesday – Columbus Day, or Day of Hispanicity. The members of the party will be celebrating their three key principles: the unity of the country, the Spanish language and the values engendered in the national flag. This will be a thinly-veiled attack on devolution, a key policy of the present government and one which the centrist party believes has contributed to the economic problems of the day, along with an open-door immigration policy.

Protests will be coming from all angles and all sides of the political spectrum to the different governments of Europe this autumn and it will be a measure of their reformist ability as to how well they allay the fears of the masses. The unions in the UK have managed to install Ed Miliband as their preferred successor to Gordon Brown at the head of the Labour Party with an aim to rally the rebellious troops against the necessary cuts being outlined by the Coalition. Their partners in France and Spain are also standing up to the deficit-reduction packages being offered by their respective governments. Over the next few months we will see who blinks first.

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