Global General

Europe pushes austerity, even for king and queen

Updated: 2010-09-16 09:35
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MADRID - French workers and Spanish royalty became the latest to feel the bite of Europe's debt crisis on Wednesday as officials said the king and queen would have to tighten their belts and France's National Assembly voted to delay retirement until the ripe old age of 62.

Spaniards largely welcomed word that their monarchs are feeling their pain, but anger flared across the border as French lawmakers overcame vocal protests to send to the Senate a sweeping overhaul of the retirement plan, including a highly contested measure to extend working life beyond 60.

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The vote in the lower house of parliament was 329-233. The opposition was boisterous, with Socialists shouting "Resign!" as the Assembly president cut short debate and thousands of protesters marched outside.

Riot police guarded a crowd that police estimated at 6,500 and protesters at 20,000. Last week, opposition to the bill drew at least 1.1 million protesters into the streets of 220 cities and a strike disrupted trains, planes, hospitals and mail delivery across France.

The vote puts France on track to become the latest country to require workers to stay on the job longer. Germany is set to raise its retirement age over the coming years from 65 to 67 to offset a shrinking, aging population, and the United States is gradually doing the same.

Spain is doing the same, enraging unions that are planning Spain's first general strike in nearly a decade for September 29 to denounce competition-minded reforms that make it easier and cheaper for companies to lay people off.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is to present a slimmed-down budget for 2011 this month, and an official with the Spanish Royal Palace said Wednesday it expects King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia to get a slimmer piece of that national pie.

Spain is trying to chip away at a 20 percent unemployment rate and generate growth - and to avoid letting its deficit push Spain off the cliff Greece almost went over in May, when it was saved by a euro110 billion ($143.5 billion) EU and IMF rescue package.

That package demanded reforms designed to foster competition that are still drawing protests. Outside Athens, truckers who triggered a run on gas stations over the weekend parked their vehicles along highways for a third day Wednesday.

Spain's monarchs are not the first to be hit by the European crisis. In July, Britain said Queen Elizabeth II was cutting spending, reducing the cost of the British monarchy by 8 percent from the previous year at 38 million pounds ($58 million). Spain's royals are a comparative bargain: The 2010 Royal Palace budget was euro8.9 million ($11.4 million).

Europe's other royals appear less inclined to emergency frugality. In the Netherlands, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima want to tear down postwar farmhouses to build three villas at a reported cost of euro6 million each. And the Swedish royal court got 7 percent more money in 2010 - 125 million kronor ($17.5 million) - partly to cover Crown Princess Victoria's wedding to her personal trainer and their new accommodation at Haga castle.

This summer, in the Spanish national spirit of adjusting to leaner times, the king and queen shaved two weeks off their vacation on the island of Mallorca, sailed less frequently on the royal yacht Fortuna and received fewer guests. They did, however, host US first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha for a brief courtesy call as the Americans wound up a visit to Spain.

The 140 staffers who work for the royal family saw their wages cut by as much as 15 percent along with other civil servants as part of an austerity plan enacted in May. The king and queen will see cuts for 2011 as well, a palace official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity in line with palace rules, though he wouldn't say how much.

On the streets of Madrid, there were few tears for the shrinking royal coffers.

"We are all suffering from the crisis," said 66-year-old retiree Pedro Barco. "I think it only normal that the king and queen have less money."