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Germany

Church Leaders Urge Fair Social Reforms

Germany’s reform process has been the focus of several Christmas speeches this year. Church leaders as well as the German president have urged politicians to have a social conscience when implementing necessary reforms.

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Reform concerns have dominated Christmas addresses in Germany.

Christmas church services in Germany have a common theme this year. A recent raft of social welfare and labor reforms aimed at trimming Germany’s generous welfare state is uppermost in the minds of representatives from both the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Though most church leaders agree Germany’s social system needed to be rehauled given the ruinous state of health and pension coffers and an aging population, they are adamant the reforms shouldn’t be allowed to take place at the cost of the weak and the poor in society.

Preserving solidarity

Chairman of the Protestant Church in Germany, Wolfgang Huber warned during mass in a Berlin church on Wednesday that the principle of solidarity should not be allowed to be trampled upon by the rational arguments of modernizing and revamping the social and labor system.

Huber stressed that it was important that the government made sure that the cuts and freezes in the social sector were applied fairly and justly. "I’m in favor of reforms that aim to preserve the social state," Huber told the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Wednesday. "But a prerequisite for that, is that the people are ready for substantial change."

Huber underlined that politicians needed to ensure that both the old and young wouldn’t be more fearful of the future after the reform process than before.

Reforms at the cost of the weak?

Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference Cardinal Lehmann said that increased individual responsibility in society couldn’t be allowed to lead to isolation and social indifference.

"Naturally the Church is there for the weak," Lehmann told the Bild Zeitung. "But families, single parents and the long-term unemployed cannot be allowed to be crushed under the weight of the reforms."

A radical shake-up of the social system

The reforms known as Agenda 2010, a sweeping package of labor, social and economic reforms designed to kickstart the sluggish economy and downsize the bloated welfare system, has been the dominant political theme in Germany this year.

Unveiled by Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in March, the reforms have sparked furious debate as Germans face the prospect of losing out on comfortable benefits provided by their generous welfare system.

Some of the aspects of the reform package such as loosening protectionist labor laws, slashing unemployment benefits and freezing pensions have been bitterly opposed by traditional leftwingers in Schröder’s own party ranks and by the powerful trade unions as socially unfair.

Despite the opposition, Schröder managed to get crucial health and pension reforms passed earlier this year. Recently parliament approved a package of tax and labor reforms that will pave the way for a major tax cut next year and make it easier for employers to hire and fire people.

More humanitarian reforms

Earlier German President Johannes Rau added his voice to the growing concerns over the social fairness of the reforms.

In his Christmas address to the nation, the president pleaded for a more humanitarian touch to the ongoing reform debate. Rau stressed that social and tax reforms were necessary, but at the same time warned that economic cost-cutting arguments shouldn’t always be applied to core societal responsibilities such as education and health.

"We have to watch out that our entire social life in all aspects isn’t increasingly influenced by principles of economy and efficiency," he added. "We’ll only be heading for a dead-end."

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