The New York Times' endless war on spending discipline (aka "austerity") has an overseas front, and it made Saturday's front page: Andrew Higgins' "Europe Pressed To Reconsider Cuts as a Cure." The word "austerity" appeared 14 times, each with a negative connotation, while Higgins pungent prose left no doubt how he felt about how it was working in Europe, where the word "has become a byword for misery."
Unemployment has surpassed Great Depression-era levels in Southern Europe. Recession is drifting to the once resilient economies of the north. Even some onetime hawks on government spending say they cannot cut any more.
After years of insisting that the primary cure for Europe’s malaise is to slash spending, the champions of austerity, most notably Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, find themselves under intensified pressure to back off unpopular remedies and find some way to restore faltering growth to the world’s largest economic bloc.
On Friday, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who once promoted aggressive budget cuts, became the latest leader to reject European Union targets for reducing deficits.
That is one of several developments -- a recent court ruling against job cuts in Portugal; a new, austerity-averse prime-minister-in-waiting in Italy; and mounting doubts among ordinary Europeans and even the International Monetary Fund -- that have forced senior officials in Brussels to acknowledge that a move away from what critics see as a fixation on debt and deficits toward more growth-friendly policies is necessary.
Europe is not about to throw open the spending spigots in the 27 nations of the European Union, even as the bloc teeters on the edge of a new regionwide recession. But officials are clearly shifting toward what Leonardo Domenici, an Italian member of the European Parliament, described as “austerity with a human face.”
Even Ms. Merkel has tried of late to soften her image as the unbending deficit scold of Europe. Asked at a forum in Berlin this week whether the “screw of austerity” had been turned too tight, she complained that what used to be “called saving or consolidation or balanced budgets” is “now called austerity,” adding that this “really sounds like something completely evil.”
Like Ms. Merkel, the European Union shuns the word “austerity,” which has been banished from the official lexicon in favor of the technocratic euphemism “fiscal consolidation.” At a summit meeting in Brussels in February, the union’s 27 leaders, who met just out of earshot of thousands protesting austerity, responded to public fury by endorsing “differentiated, growth-friendly fiscal consolidation,” code for flexible policies tailored to each country rather than doctrinaire, one-size-fits-all debt and other targets.
The linguistic adjustment, while doing little to calm protesters, has since translated into real steps to relieve economies straitjacketed by budget cuts. Portugal and Ireland, for example, were this month given seven more years to repay bailout loans. Spain, France and the Netherlands are meanwhile likely to get a green light from Brussels in coming weeks to miss what are supposed to be mandatory budget deficit targets.
In much of Europe, austerity has become a byword for misery and has helped stir a fierce backlash against the so-called European project, a venture that began in 1951 to bind the Continent’s previously warring states into a zone of harmony and, it was hoped, prosperity.