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Germany

German States Agree to Reform of Federal Constitution

Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet and state premiers have approved a new bill to overhaul Germany's complex federal system and speed up decision making. Parliament will debate the proposal later this week.

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Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat, represents states' interests

After years of unsuccessful attempts to reform Germany's federalist system, a solution is finally within sight. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet and 15 of the 16 powerful state premiers approved a bill that, if adopted by parliament, would mark the biggest overhaul of the national constitution since its creation in 1949.

Dubbed "the mother of all reforms" by the German media, the new measures are aimed at untangling the complicated interlocking responsibilities of the federal government and the 16 states. Slated for introduction in January 2007, the reform foresees a roll-back of the power of the Bundesrat, or upper house, which represents the states' interests.

Division of powers cripples reform

The current federalist structure, which was put in place after World War II as a check on central power, is widely viewed as a hindrance to decision making. The Bundesrat can veto 60 percent of all bills put through the legislative branch, thus significantly slowing down or even blocking key proposals.

Both conservative and Social Democratic-led governments have criticized the disproportionate influence of the states' representatives and blamed the Bundesrat for torpedoing reform efforts in the last decade.

If the federalist reform bill goes through parliament, it would cut the number of laws that the Bundesrat can veto and establish a clearer power separation between the states and Berlin. In exchange for dilution of the Bundesrat's power, the states would get more control over areas like educational policy. The financial ties between the two levels of government are set to be revamped in a second stage of the reform.

Cross-party support for overhaul

It is largely due to the combined efforts of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats that the bill has progressed so far this time. Both parties put aside their difference and threw their weight behind the proposal, which Chancellor Merkel heralded as a success for the grand coalition.

Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel

"This reform of the federal system is essential for speeding up decision making, something which is of paramount importance here in the 21st century," Merkel said at a news conference Monday. "I am convinced that only a grand coalition had the power to reach today's decision."

Merkel, who has seen her rating soar in her first 100 days of office, is under pressure to deliver results in domestic issues. Reform and the ability to push through far-reaching changes will be the litmus test for her grand coalition government. The revamp of the constitution is an important first step in this process.

Two-thirds support necessary

The first part of the federalist reform will go to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. on Friday, although approval is not expected for several months. Because the reform will require changes to the German constitution, a two-thirds majority in both houses is required for the measures to go through.

While conceding that changes were likely during parliamentary deliberations, leaders from both parties were reluctant to start a new debate on the reform before it went up for voting. "We cannot begin undoing the overall package," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, told reporters. "Anyone who believes that endangers the entire reform."

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