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Opinion: West been eating cake too long

Europe, with its treasured welfare-state indulgences, is going to find it hard to adjust to leaner times.

A protester shouts slogans during a rally to protest the government's austerity measures in Athens, May 12, 2010. About 2,000 Greeks marched to parliament on Wednesday to protest against spending cuts and tax hikes, as the debt-choked country received a first installment of 5.5 billion euros as part of an EU-IMF "pain-for-gain" deal. The banner reads "Uprising." (John Kolesidis/Reuters)

BOSTON — There is an old joke about what do you do if you don’t know anything about the country being discussed at a dinner party. You simply say: “Yes, but it’s different in the south.”

It works for almost any country whether it be Yeman, India, China or the United States. It’s certainly true of Great Britain, where if the Conservative swing in England had only been replicated in Scotland, the Conservatives might have had a clear majority in parliament without the need for coalition government.

It works for regions, too. Think of the Americas, or Asia. It certainly works for the European Union, and for the eurozone — those 16 countries that have adopted the euro as their currency. Britain can be thankful to poor old Gordon Brown for having kept Britain out of the eurozone when former Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted in.

Greece has become the bad boy of the zone for cheating and lying about its finances and living high off the hog for too long when it couldn’t afford it. The recent trillion-dollar bailout has things calmed down for the moment, but there are worries about the entire southern tier of Europe, with Spain, Portugal and even Italy should the Greek disease spread.

Ireland is another country where it’s different in the South, with the Republic only recently considered the up-and-coming place to invest compared to the troubled North. But today southern Ireland’s finances are in shambles too, joining Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain to spell “PIIGS” in the taunting language of the richer European countries that are doing the bailing.

There are lots of theories why the southern countries of Europe are not as fiscally responsible as the northern tier. Some talk about the Protestant ethic and the hard northern forests compared to the softer climes south of the Alps. Others speak of the sparse, worn-out soil of the south compared with the better earth up north. Still others speak of the historical shift of power and wealth from southern Europe northward around about the 17th century when Holland and Britain began to replace Spain and Portugal as the maritime powers of the world.

Take whatever theory you want, the stereotypes are coming to the fore as the thrifty, hard-working Germans complain bitterly about the feckless, fun-loving Greeks. Certainly it is hard to imagine Germans breaking plates at weddings.