Once upon a time there was a government job: steady, unsackable, and sometimes on the slack side, with inflation-adjusted pay cheques and long paid holidays, Christmas and holiday bonuses, a fat pension and the prospect of early retirement. It was the job three generations of Europeans dreamed of, with job security, status and the perks of being a fonctionnaire, civil servant, Regierungsbeamter or funcionario público. Not only was the public sector, unlike the private sector, redundancy-proof, but there was no risk of your employers’ going bankrupt.

But ever since the Greek crisis reminded Europe that even a state can go bust, civil servants have become a little more like everyone else. And the myth of the job-for-life has gone up in smoke. All the European states, from the laissez-faire British to the French statists, have now begun hacking away at salaries, bonuses and the very size of state bureaucracy in a bid to beat back deficits and please the markets.

The record goes to Britain’s David Cameron, whose “spending review” will cut loose some 490,000 civil servants. And it could actually turn out to be more, says the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, “with total job losses rising to close to 750,000 by 2015/16 if the coalition sticks to its existing longer-term spending plans”. Retirees will no longer be replaced, but the bulk of the “reduction in force” will simply involve sacking people.

Wages and jobs cut, posts left unfilled

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy opted to freeze salaries and only replace half the retiring fonctionnaires: since 2007, 100,000 jobs have vanished into thin air, and another 31,638 are to follow suit in 2011. Over in Portugal, after freezing state salaries in 2010, socialist José Socrates is about to announce some more grim tidings: 5% pay cuts and a freeze on promotions and hiring.

At the beginning of the month, Spanish PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said it would take at least three years for funcionarios to recoup the 5% salary reduction decided in the spring. And in Ireland, where public-sector pay has plunged 14%, the deal between the government and unions to squeeze civil servants a wee bit more is still hanging in the balance.

In Greece, George Papandreou’s government has slashed public salaries, put hiring on hold, upped the retirement age and dispensed with Christmas and holiday bonuses. In early October, temporary staff at the ministry of culture occupied the Acropolis to protest against the non-renewal of their contracts, joining the air, port and railway staff who have been on strike for months. On 21 September the Czech Republic witnessed the biggest demonstration since the fall of communism: 40,000 civil servants marched down the streets of Prague against an impending 10% blow to their monthly remuneration. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has reined inpurchases of service vehicles and telephones for the government sector. Latvian state workers have lost an average of 30% in income.

Even Eurocrats are feeling the pain

No one is spared the axe of austerity, not even well-heeled Germany. Angela Merkel has announced that 15,000 Beamten will have to go by 2014. Even the new frontier of the public sector, the rich, cosmopolitan and highly-coveted world of EU functionaries, is feeling the pinch. Faced with a tighter budget, the Commission is resorting to temporary workers and contracts so as to avoid swelling the permanent ranks of the Eurocracy. After halving pay rises for 2010, it now intends to trim the eurocrats’ pay cheques by 0.4%.

Translated from the Italian by Eric Rosencrantz