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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.

Greeks say it was an honor not to pay taxes in the times of Ottoman domination, but the Ottomans haven’t ruled in Greece for more than a century. Still, some historians like to blame the Ottoman past for the instability of the Balkan peninsula. That won’t work for Spain and Portugal, unless you want to blame the Moors who were expelled in 1492, and the Ottomans never reached Italy, much less Ireland.

Britain’s debt is reaching Greek proportion, and the new Conservative-Liberal government is promising an austerity not seen in many decades. Will the British people accept it? We have seen Greeks reacting with violence to the austerity their government is trying to impose, and it is a real question whether, in democracies, you can force people to swallow the medicine they so desperately need.

Hard times produce social disruption, as Europeans know too well. And Europe has no stomach for deprivation. One remembers the French students who demonstrated in Paris a couple of years back against giving employers a right to fire them, and the New Yorker cartoon it produced showing placards saying “Let us eat cake.”

The Western world has been eating cake for too long on both sides of the Atlantic. But Europe, with its treasured welfare-state indulgences, is going to find it hard to adjust to leaner times.

Financial Times columnist, Gideon Rachman, put it well when he wrote that he once thought that Europe had got it right. Let America be the military superpower, and China the economic superpower. “Europe would be the lifestyle super-power,” with the “most beautiful cities, the best food and wine, the richest cultural history, the longest holidays, the best football teams.” But now Europe is discovering that it really can’t afford to be the lifestyle superpower, and that “things can go badly wrong — even within the walled garden of the European Union.”

The first half of the 21st century may be remembered by historians as the time when it all went wrong. In retrospect, one could argue that the EU expanded too fast, accepted too many countries into the walled garden. The eurozone has been a failure, especially for those countries that never had managed fiscal discipline. But now the ship is taking on water and all aboard her have little choice other than to keep bailing.