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Britain debates: What should European welfare look like?

The debate in Parliament, which today passed a measure to temporarily cap most welfare benefits, is part of a larger debate in Europe over how to handle welfare amid the debt crisis.

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By ramping up the rhetoric ahead of today's vote, Britain's Conservative Party sought to exploit perceived associations between their Labour opponents and notions of an outdated welfare state. Drawing on focus group research, one recent Conservative election attack ad featured an image of a man on sofa watching daytime television and asked if the government should support “hardworking families or people who don’t work.”

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Polling last week also revealed that more than 2 out of 5 people believe that benefits were too generous, and 3 out of 5 buy into the idea that a culture of dependency had emerged. A British trade union umbrella body that commissioned the research said Tuesday that public support for measures such as the one adopted by Parliament was based on ignorance of who will suffer.

A European problem

But in many ways, the British debate over how to deal with its welfare state amid an economic crisis is par for the course in Europe – and one that, according to the British government, Britain is handling better than its peers on the Continent.

In Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, the three eurozone countries that have suffered most from the crisis engulfing the current zone, draconian cuts in welfare have been part of the bargain for International Monetary Fund bailouts. France's newly elected Socialist president, François Hollande has meanwhile been preparing the French for major changes to one of Europe's most expansive welfare states, pledging to bring down the budget deficit to 3 percent this year and announcing that “we must be ready to do better by spending less.”

Traute Meyer, a professor at the University of Southampton involved in research about the welfare state in Europe, points out that trends over the past 10 years have seen every European welfare state moving to change their system in line with their own unique cultural and historical traditions. “Nordic countries are still those with the highest employment rates and equality measures. Systems in southern countries still tend to be the most fragile, while Germany and others on the Continent are holding onto systems based on social-insurance-based income,” she says.

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