By DON MELVIN, Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — For more than a year, European Union officials have called for austerity, austerity and more austerity as a means to solve Europe's debt crisis. Now people who don't want to pay the price are taking their fight from the streets to the ballot box.
Governments have fallen, more are at risk and in some places, a stark streak of nationalism is on the rise that could swing Europe ever deeper into a fortress mentality.
At stake is the future of the continent, where countries rich and poor are struggling with mountains of debt and moribund economies — a toxic combination that often seems to require contradictory remedies of belt-tightening and economic stimulus.
Increasingly, the long focus on austerity is convincing Europeans that the German-led mantra of fiscal responsibility is creating a vicious circle of more misery leading to lower growth — leading to even greater debt distress.
"What is happening in Europe is the austerity drive is actually slowing down the necessary rebalancing of European economies," said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform.
Austerity measures aimed at balancing national budgets have led to drastic spending cuts by governments across the continent, including layoffs and pay cuts for government workers, slashing of key services including welfare and development programs, as well as tax hikes to boost government revenues.
Many in Europe have had enough of this harsh medicine.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the architects of the EU's response to the financial crisis, is in danger of being turned out of office in next month's runoff with Francois Hollande — a Socialist who is promising not to cut, but to increase public spending by €20 billion ($26.3 billion) by 2017.
Hollande is also promising to re-negotiate a much-vaunted budgetary pact among 25 EU countries meant to enforce national fiscal discipline.
Greece votes in elections next month in which fringe parties hostile to international bailouts requiring steep austerity are expected to make big gains — possibly endangering efforts by the current technocratic government to rein in the nation's debt.
And the Netherlands' 18-month-old conservative coalition resigned this week after it failed to agree on cutting its own budget deficit to meet the EU limits it had demanded so fiercely of other countries.
Beyond that, in the Czech Republic, almost 100,000 people rallied in Prague's downtown Wenceslas Square last weekend to protest government reforms and cuts, calling on the government to resign in one of the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism. And earlier this year, tens of thousands of Romanians bitter about savage public-sector wage cuts took to the streets and the government collapsed.
Analysts say it's no surprise that people are fed up.
"I don't think there are any examples of countries accepting endless austerity and downward standards of living," Tilford said. "There has to be light at the end of the tunnel."
Voters may have good reasons to reject unrelenting cuts. But in their desire to avoid pain, they may also be prompting politicians to put off decisions that Europe must take to remain competitive globally.
Many experts say government protections for workers need to be loosened — for example, by making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers — in order to halt the flight of jobs from Europe to regions deemed more business-friendly.
And the anger appears to be driving voters to the extremes. In the first round of the French presidential election last weekend, nearly one voter in five cast their ballot for the National Front, a hard-right party previously known primarily for its anti-immigraton platform.
That, along with the 11 percent showing by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, shows a high level of anger, said Piotr Kaczynski, a research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Studies.
"The big winners of the French elections are the extreme parties — extreme right and extreme left," which together won more than 30 percent of the vote, Kaczynski said.