European Welfare State Model under Strain as Labor Tensions Rise

Europe has been hit by a wave of industrial and social unrest in recent days and weeks, as workers across the continent push back against efforts to cut government spending and drive down wages. The uncoordinated strikes and protests, which have taken place in at least a dozen European countries and have threatened to paralyze much of the continent, may be a harbinger of more unrest to come.

With much of Europe in or just barely out of recession and many millions of Europeans out of work and collecting welfare checks, governments large and small are scrambling to fix gaping budget holes in an effort to stave off financial disaster. In Spain, for example, the government spent twice as much as it took in during 2009, with unemployment benefits constituting the largest single component of government expenditures.

Many other European countries are in a similar bind. Indeed, with millions of long-term unemployed Europeans on track to becoming permanent wards of the state, the European social model is under strain as never before.

In some European countries, there has been tough talk about the need to roll back the much-vaunted welfare state. In Germany, for example, pro-business Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle recently called for a complete overhaul of the German social welfare system and warned that German workers were fast becoming “the nation’s suckers.” Westerwelle also said that increasing benefits to the long-term unemployed would create the kind of decadence that paved the way for the fall of the Roman Empire. “Whoever promises the people effortless prosperity encourages late Roman decadence,” Westerwelle declared. “Everyone who is young and healthy and has no relatives to look after must accept reasonable work, whether that is in the form of community work, a career or training,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Westerwelle’s comments have stirred considerable controversy. After all, the European social welfare state, which is supposed to guarantee a generous system of social benefits, relative wage and income equality, and a prominent role for organized labor, forms the basis of Europe’s post-World War II social order.

Increasingly, however, European governments (even some on the political left) are warning about the need to downsize the welfare state in order to save it. More and more frequently, there is talk of austerity and the need for belt-tightening measures, such as public pay freezes and raising the retirement age, designed to reduce the size of government. But angry European workers are having none of it.

It’s a similar story in the private sector, where companies are under pressure to restructure and/or downsize to remain viable. But European workers are growing increasingly restive, and many are taking to the streets.

Although many of the strikes and protests have been relatively short-lived, they represent growing popular resistance to attempts by European governments and corporations to cut back on spending. It remains to be seen whether European governments, which derive much of their political legitimacy from doling out social welfare benefits, will buckle under popular pressure and abandon reform.

However, if European governments stand firm and push through the painful austerity measures that many countries need to return to economic health, more labor strife will almost certainly follow. According to one analyst, the recent wave of protests could be “just the start of the greatest demonstration of public unrest seen on the continent since the revolutionary fervour of 1968.”

In any case, even if European publics are in denial about the future viability of the European social welfare state, a growing number of European governments seem to be acknowledging, albeit reluctantly, that their social and economic model is unsustainable. Strange, then, that many Americans view the European model as something to emulate rather than avoid.

What follows is a brief summary of some of the strikes and protest movements to hit Europe in recent days: