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Germany

Federal Reform: A Critical First Step

Now that Angela Merkel's cabinet has been named, it's time for the hard work to begin. At the top of the agenda should be changing Germany's creaking federal structure, which has served mostly to block needed reform.

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Rethinking federal and state responsibilities is critical

"Merkel's Cabinet is Complete" -- those words, or similar ones, make up the headlines in the majority of Germany's papers today. And indeed, now that the conservatives have decided who will head the ministries they were alloted in grand coalition negotiations, Germans do know for certain who will govern them. But while the cabinet make-up is clear, the cabinet's future direction is anything but.

In the meantime, Germany's top journalists and talk show hosts are engaging in their favorite pursuits: analyzing who got his or her way in the doling out of cabinet positions; opining over whether or not Merkel is being strengthened or weakened by the actions of various leading politicians from the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD); and trying to find out which players inside the coalition might build their own smaller coalitions behind the chancellor's back.

But such questions are of very little interest to the normal citizen. They want to know about the things that affect them directly. Which taxes will be raised or lowered? Will their pensions rise or fall? Will unemployment benefits decrease in the future? What will a visit to the doctor, the hospital or the pharmacy cost? Will driving on the country's freeways remain free of charge?

All of these questions will be addressed in the coming four weeks of coalition negotiations. In this respect, the last month, while high drama for journalists, was wasted time in the eyes of most citizens.

People are interested in results, even the kind of results that they suspect will be painful. At the same time, that's exactly what they are afraid of. Of course people know that five million unemployed will, over time, prove the ruin of the welfare state. They're aware that the public coffers are already in critical condition. But they are very afraid of the actions that need to be taken to solve these problems.

Was geht rein, was kommt raus?

Germans voted for reform, but not too much of it

It is because the Union parties prescribed bitter medicine to address Germany's ills during their election campaign that they did so poorly on election day. And it is because of that fear of change, of loss, that current surveys show the most public support going to those cabinet members who promise to maintain the status quo.

Those are not good signs for a coalition led by Angela Merkel, especially in an age when politics increasingly depends on opinion polls. It is questionable whether she will have much room to maneuver when it comes to lowering the unemployment rate and getting Germany's budget in order.

It is for that reason that the third task that the coalition negotiators have chosen to tackle -- the reform of the German federal system -- could prove to be the most important. That is no easy task -- it means untying the Gordian knot that has developed between the federal government and the 16 federal states, or Länder, and determining which is ultimately responsible for different policy areas, such as education, the environment or consumer protection.

Such reform would take away the possibility for citizens to sabotage the work of the federal government which they themselves elected, since state elections these days often become pure protest votes.

Bundesrat stimmt über EU-Verfassung ab, Ratifizierung

The Bundesrat, controlled by the states, has a say over many budget matters

The result is that any federal government ready to enact serious reform is confronted in record time with massive opposition in the Bundesrat -- the upper house of parliament consisting of representatives from the states -- and the state parliaments. This development, which has taken place over the past 15 years, has inflicted a great deal of damage on the country and if a grand coalition can do something to reverse it, there would be much to celebrate. The remaining tasks at hand could then be tackled by the next government, whatever its composition may be.

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