Is the medicine making the patient worse? As uncertainty continues to rock the Eurozone, member-states are implementing a range of austerity packages to tackle mounting government debts – but is any of it actually working? We’ve seen riots and protests across the continent, as ordinary people lash out at public sector cuts many see as unnecessary at best and, at worse, actively damaging to recovery.
We had a comment sent in from Jakob from Germany, suggesting that public sector cuts should be seen as an excuse to slim down excessive bureaucracies and reduce the size of the state. We took the idea to a range of policy-makers for their responses, to gauge how politicians viewed austerity across Europe.
Averof Neofytou, a conservative Cypriot politician, was sympathetic to the idea that government needed to be reduced:
Yes I think so. The point is not to cut public services but the cost of these services to the taxpayer. Many governments in Southern Europe employ more people that they need and with a higher average pay than the private sector. In order to begin to reduce the size of governments, fewer people than those that retire should be employed. Various government departments can be joined together and civil servants should be transferred between departments that have higher needs in personnel than others. In this way there would be no need to hire more people but merely to move them between departments depending on the demand of services.
Not all on the centre-right were so convinced that austerity was the only solution, however. Andreas Schwab, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the German Christian Democrats, cautioned against ideologically motivated cuts:
Smaller government is not necessarily in the interest of the citizens. Today’s world is interdependent and multilayered. Government has to deal with these complex structures and adapt to the new circumstances. Therefore it has to be checked for effectiveness and efficiency and one has to make sure that there is no money wasted. This may lead to restructuring and thus to reduction of jobs – not due to fiscal reasons but because of structural ones. Saving money must never end in a situation in which government is not able to perform its duties any longer.
Others were neutral. Dirk Sterckx, a Belgian liberal MEP, argued that Europeans shouldn’t care where their services came from, as long as they were efficient:
Voters should in the first place call for efficient government. Not all “small government” is efficient or cost effective. I have no ideological preference for “public” service over “private” service. We will have to provide the services at the highest level of quality and lowest cost. If governments or public service providers provide this quality and cost-efficiency, so much the better. If not, let private providers do the job and let government regulate, control and finance if and where it is necessary. But let us not fool ourselves, budget deficits destroy the basis of good public service provision.
Finally, some were fiercely critical of the idea that “less government” was the answer. Monica Frassoni, an Italian Green politician and former MEP, for example:
On the very contrary: the current crisis is in many cases not due to excessive public spending, but to speculation, bad financial management, lack of regulation, which had a major impact on public deficit. We have to get out of the old already failed liberist idea that shrinking the government will help growth. It will help growth of richer people and banks. People in the streets need more welfare not less. Tax evasion and lack of regulation, inequal distribution of resources are a huge growing problems in our societies. And if the EU keeps on giving “just tighten your belts” as its only message to its citizens, then there can be no solution to its loss of legitimacy.