Can The European Welfare State Survive? Europe's social support system is under pressure. The recent debt crisis and the continent's demographic changes are shaking the foundations of the EU's shared social vision. In NPR's series on Europe, a look at how governments are struggling to preserve benefits while cutting costs.
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Can The European Welfare State Survive?

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Can The European Welfare State Survive?

Can The European Welfare State Survive?

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: its social support system. Some call it the European Welfare State. Among EU nations, there is a shared belief that the government has a responsibility to care for its citizens. The European Welfare System, largely put in place during the growth years following World War II, is now under enormous pressure as Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The couple is married, and today they're picking up their two-and-a-half-year- old daughter, Astrid, from the campus kindergarten.

ANDERS DALSAGER: Hi Astrid.

BEARDSLEY: Dalsager and Larsen say they were able to afford having a child, even though they don't yet have jobs, because the government also gives them a child care subsidy.

DALSAGER: As a regular student, you get five years of support, and then if you have a child, you get extra support from the government - 12 months if it's the mother and six months if it's the father.

BEARDSLEY: When David finally got her residency, it came with automatic coverage under France's extensive health care system. David says that has been a blessing because of her chronic asthma.

MARITES DAVID: Mostly every summer I have to go to the emergency room because I can't breathe in the summer. They look after you until you're OK. For me, everything is free - for medicine, doctors, hospital. It's nice to live here.

BEARDSLEY: Both the Danish students and this Philippine nanny are supported by the European Union's generous social welfare system. While the model and level of benefits varies from country to country, as a general rule, Europeans enjoy free health care, long-term unemployment support, liberal vacation time and solid maternity and child care benefits.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: The European Welfare system has been an important element of European identity. And I would say one of the great comparative advantages of Europe; if not in economic terms, at least in social and human terms.

BEARDSLEY: That may be true, says Nicolas Doze, an economic commentator with a popular French business channel. But without major reforms, Doze says the European Union will not be able to maintain its vision of a kinder, gentler way of life.

NICOLAS DOZE: (Through Translator) Our social system in France, alone, has accumulated more than 100 billion euros in debt, and it just isn't viable anymore. Today it survives thanks to one thing: France's AAA credit rating and our ability to keep borrowing to pay for the social programs.

BEARDSLEY: Germans are angry about cuts in social spending.

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BEARDSLEY: Couder says the rules of the game changed midcourse, and it's the workers who are paying the price.

FRANCOIS COUDER: (Through Translator) We came into the company with a clear contract to work 40 years and retire. Now, the closer we get to retirement, they say, no, you need to go a little longer. Will they keep adding years? If it's all to retire into a hospice or a wheelchair, what's the point?

BEARDSLEY: A large percentage of social spending in the European Union goes toward supporting labor market policies, like unemployment benefits and pension systems, says economist Willem Adema, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

WILLEM ADEMA: With the dynamics of an aging population and the increase in life expectancy, and with the financial pressures, raising retirement ages is going on across many different European countries.

BEARDSLEY: But the streets of Copenhagen bustle with well-off and happy-looking people. Denmark also has one of Europe's lowest unemployment rates - around five percent. That's largely because of a system called flexicurity that gives employers the freedom to hire and fire, while the state supports laid-off workers with generous benefits and training.

LARS BO KASPERSEN: We have a very dynamic, innovative business sector, but it's facilitated and enabled by strong public institutions.

BEARDSLEY: Jacques Attali is advising the French government on ways to reign in health care spending.

JACQUES ATTALI: We may be very proud of our system, and we have not the slightest intention to change it, and we can afford it. What we have to do is just to have small adjustment of one percent of our GDP; one percent of our spending is not a lot of money. We will do it.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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