Feature

Europe: The end of the cushy civil service job

By the end of this year, the collective debt of EU countries will equal their combined gross domestic product.

“The fat years are over,” said Winand von Petersdorff in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The financial crisis has hit Europe so hard that by the end of this year, the collective debt of EU countries will equal their combined gross domestic product. Even Germany, “which by some miracle has so far been blessed,” is projected to amass as much debt next year as struggling Spain has now. Elsewhere, the situation is equally bleak. The last time the continent was this debt-ridden was after World War II, when the population was growing rapidly, adding future workers to the rolls. This time around, the debt will be shouldered by “aging, tired societies.” So it seems the only solution is massive cuts in government spending. “‘Austerity’ is the word of the day.”

That means an end to “the cushy life of Europe’s endangered civil servants,” said Italy’s Il Foglio in an editorial. The government job was long seen as the ideal situation for a European worker: “steady, unsackable, undemanding, with inflation-adjusted pay and long paid holidays, Christmas and holiday bonuses, a fat pension, and the prospect of early retirement.” But now that Greece and Ireland have proved that even governments can go bankrupt, all the European countries, whether governed by socialists or conservatives, are being forced to “hack away at salaries, bonuses, and the very size of state bureaucracy.” Ireland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Spain have all cut wages, while France has cut 100,000 jobs by not replacing retiring bureaucrats. Germany plans to cut 15,000 the same way. But “the record goes to Britain,” where Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would fire nearly half a million civil servants.

It does sound like a lot, said Libby Purves in the London Times. But the British workers facing the ax are doing truly pointless jobs. Many of the positions created by the New Labor governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were nanny-state excesses, such as “diversity cohesion officers” tasked with leading talks about race, or “five-a-day coordinators” charged with promoting greater consumption of vegetables. There are platoons of officials “whose sole function is filling out monitoring forms about the work of their more directly active fellows.” Still, throwing these people out of work is no cause for rejoicing. It’s not their fault the job they applied for and got in good faith was “a chimera, a governmental vanity, sometimes a mere vote-buying device.” We can only hope that the economy will bounce back and supply them with more productive, useful vocations.

How is that supposed to happen? asked Irish analyst Jason Walsh in France’s Presseurop.eu. “Slash-and-burn policies shrink the economy, not grow it.” Cutting spending and throwing people out of work only cause “further retraction of consumer spending and a lower tax take.” Yet European governments insist on comparing national budgets to household budgets and claiming that we should not “live beyond our means.” Ireland, for example, wants to cut a staggering $21 billion in state spending over four years. How can it possibly meet such a goal? “Permanently close all roads? Demand every Irish resident sell a kidney on the black market?” There’s just one way this can end: We’ll have to “euthanize everyone over 25, Logan’s Run–style.”

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