Crisis threatens Europe's storied way of life

Associated Press Modified: May 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm •  Published: May 8, 2012
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Elections in France and Greece reflect the anger and disillusionment coming to the surface across Europe as an entire way of life is challenged. The European landscape is undergoing profound change — from its sophisticated lifestyle to its cherished welfare benefits like guaranteed health care and a secure retirement, to a sense among many Europeans of being the world's elite.

Here are some of the ways the continent is grappling with change in this time of economic crisis.

— THE WELFARE STATE:

Six-week paid vacations. Retirement in your early 60s. Generous benefits for the sick and unemployed.

The cradle-to-grave welfare system that was a pillar of European life for decades is being scaled back from one austerity package to another. Retirement ages are being raised past 65 in many countries. The Swedish prime minister even toyed with the idea of making people work until 75.

Europeans are not about to give up on their fabled social model, but they can expect a slimmed-down version in the future.

"I don't think the social welfare system is being dismantled," says Rebecca Adler-Nissen, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen's Center for European Politics. "It's more about what we can afford in the future."

— LIFESTYLE:

Bon-vivants or loafers? When it comes to work-life balance, Europeans either got it totally right or lost their minds completely, depending on whom you ask.

But economic realities are now forcing the most stressed countries to question some deeply ingrained habits. Long lunches are on the wane across the continent. Spain is considering a change that takes aim at the habit of employees turning up for work and immediately going down to the closest coffee shop for a half-hour or more breakfast.

Another sacred cow being targeted is the habit of making a long weekend out of it when a holiday falls on a Thursday. In Ireland, the crisis has had an impact on legendary pub traditions. The Irish increasingly socialize at home, avoiding pubs where beer and other drink prices are several times higher than what's offered by the German discount supermarkets now proliferating in Ireland.

— POLITICAL EXTREMES:

The National Front in France. Golden Dawn in Greece. The Freedom Party of the Netherlands. The True Finns. Across Western Europe, and in parts of the East, the far-right is on the march.

Europe has deep traditions of tolerance and pluralism with roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. But European history also offers the most extreme examples of racist nationalism. While outright Nazis are a tiny minority in Europe today, the economic crisis has fueled forces on the right opposed to immigrants and the very idea of European integration.

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