Since the late 19th Century, the Europeans have been two generations ahead of the Americans on social policy, and much more aggressive in assuring that each citizen, no matter his station in life, enjoys comprehensive health care and a significant measure of economic security.
With the commercial integration that followed World War II through the European Common Market, composed initially of only six nations, and the broader European Free Trade Area, which encompassed most of the non-communist states, public aspirations for benefits in poorer nations and regions, like Portugal, Greece and southern Italy, grew to rival those in richer states.
Politicians responded by expanding and enriching social safety nets but costs rose too, as doctors, teachers and the like, expected to enjoy salaries and benefits more comparable to their colleagues further north.
The price tag outran the ability of employers and governments to pay, and inflation and national budget headaches followed.
Until the euro was adopted in 1999, southern nations would let their national currencies gradually fall in value against the German mark and other currencies of richer nations.
That boosted exports and tax revenues, but the pensions paid by Portugal, Greece and others became worth less if spent in Germany and other northern jurisdictions. Conversely, these Mediterranean states became great places for Americans and northern Europeans to vacation and retire.
After 1999, national governments in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and to a lesser extent more prosperous Italy, faced the difficult prospect of telling their citizens they could not retire as young, enjoy the same health benefits or employment security as the wealthier French, Germans and Dutch.
Instead, these governments borrowed heavily and now face severe retrenchment and perhaps eventual bankruptcy.