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Germany

Cabinet Huddles to Map Future Direction

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has called together his cabinet for a two-day balance-taking session, just as a key survey reveals the popularity of his Social Democratic Party has sunk to a record new low.

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Taking stock, setting goals

The two-day meeting in the quiet northeastern town of Neuhardenberg comes shortly after the government and opposition agreed on a package of unpopular welfare and labor market reforms.

During their retreat, cabinet ministers as well as other leading politicians from the SPD and Greens will assess the work done so far on the reform package known as Agenda 2010, and set priorities for the two years remaining in their current term of office. Other topics on the agenda include child-care and education.

Considering the widespread unpopularity of the government's package of economic, social and health reforms, it comes as little surprise that the SPD's midterm balance is marked by an all-time low in approval ratings. In a survey conducted by German public broadcaster ZDF for its respected political barometer, the SPD garnered a mere 25 percent -- a loss of two percentage points, and the worst-ever showing for the party in the poll.

The rankings of the conservative opposition sister parties CDU and CSU remained unchanged at 46 percent. The junior coalition partner, the Greens, gained a single point to reach 12 percent.

No quick fix

Schloss Neuhardenberg

Neuhardenberg Palace, where the meeting will take place

At a similar meeting in Neuhardenberg last year, Schröder attempted to combat flagging support by announcing that the SPD was pulling forward tax reforms that would put more money back in the pockets of ordinary Germans. But the chancellor's office denies reports that Schröder is aiming to pull another such rabbit out of that hat at this year's meeting.

"The purpose of this gathering is to make clear in everyone's minds where this cabinet stands two years after being re-elected, and where it's going," said Schröder's spokesman, Bela Anda. "It's not an opportunity to present any particular master plan."

However, speculation about magic tricks and master plans is making the rounds in Berlin's political circles. One such rumor: Unemployed educators will be offered jobs in kindergartens, thereby killing the two birds that are unemployment and education with one stone.

More investment, not less

Despite the government's tight budget restrictions, some SPD members are calling for increased investment in communities suffering from the country's economic downturn.

JAHRESRÜCKBLICK 2003 JUNI DEUTSCHLAND KLAUSUR KABINETT

The cabinet gathered for open air meetings in the palace gardens last year

"An impulse for more investment has to come from Neuhardenberg," said the SPD's parliamentary group deputy, Michael Müller. "If not, there's a danger that the labor market reforms won't lead quickly enough to a reduction in unemployment." Representatives from Germany's eastern states, which are disproportionately affected by high unemployment, are also calling for ministers to announce a renewed commitment to the rebuilding of the regions in the former East Germany.

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