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"Not Enough Bold Decisions in German Politics"

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, leader of the Free Democratic Party Guido Westerwelle aired his views on painful health reforms, the mired foreign policy and why the nation needs a dose of liberal economic policies.


Head of Germany's liberal Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle

Germany’s pro-business liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP)has traditionally played the role of "kingmaker" in German politics. Starting with a coalition with Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats from 1969 to 1982 and then an 18-year partnership with the conservative Christian Democrats, the FDP has always put their leader into the foreign ministry.

The party’s message of Anglo-Saxon style, free market capitalism however doesn’t seem to have been working too well in recent years since Gerhard Schröder of the SPD was elected chancellor in 1998 and entered into a coalition with the Greens, thus forcing the FDP into the opposition.

In past years, the party’s standing has crumbled following a string of funding scandals and accusations of being anti-Semitic following controversial remarks by deputy leader Jürgen Möllemann, who died recently in a parachuting incident.

41-year-old Guido Westerwelle, who took over the party reins in 2001 and steered it through last year’s dismal electoral performance spoke to Deutsche Welle’s Peter Bild on the need for overhauling Germany’s welfare state system, implementing far-reaching structural reforms and the future course of the FDP.

The FDP hasn’t had much of a say in politics in recent times, with say the health and tax reforms.

The FDP is a very successful party. You just have to look at the fact that the other parties now agree with us that tax cuts are the best way of creating jobs. That makes us very happy. We have so often put forward this policy as a solution for reviving the economy. At first we were criticized for "voodoo economics", but over time the other parties have realized this is the only way forward. We're very pleased with this development, and we intend to use our increased influence in the second chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, and also in the Bundestag, to make sure that this policy is not obstructed.

What is the FDP’s position on reforms to the health care system?

There are a couple of sensible aspects to the reform package. We managed to have some of our ideas accepted during the negotiations. For example, no strict budget limits, no restrictive lists of acceptable medicines. And patients should be allowed to choose to have their costs reimbursed rather than receiving benefits in kind. That should be clearly recognized. But in the end, all this is health system repair not health system reform, which is what's really needed.

Is there any country in the world that you would say has the sort of health system we would like to have here?

We already have a very good health system in Germany. It just has to be made to last... it's always so hard to compare different societies. Each one behaves differently: the Americans are used to totally different things - things that I at least would not want to get used to in Europe. It's not easy to compare these societies.

What would you say the FDP stands for?

It is the party of Walter Scheel, Hans Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel. We try hard to maintain continuity and reliability, especially in our foreign policy - that's the way we want to keep it.

What bothers us is that these days there is no longer a clear strategy in German foreign policy. It isn't driven enough by our national interest and it isn't clear what the government wants to achieve. Instead, they now regularly deploy the military as an instrument of foreign policy. That's something that FDP foreign ministers always prevented, and that should become the norm in German politics again.

Why don't more Germans vote "liberal"? Is it the German mentality?

I think that's changing at the moment. It's been two years since I took over the reins as party leader. We haven't achieved many of the things we set out to. We didn't manage to oust the government at the last elections --- we're not happy about that, but it's worse for the country as a whole. On the other hand, it is important to remember that the FDP more than doubled its number of representatives in state parliaments during those two years. And we have seen a growth in membership, unlike in other parties. Above all, the FDP is becoming more popular with younger voters, who cannot understand the apathetic attitude of many in the older generation. They're looking for opportunities, not "No Future" politics.

Could the FDP ever become a people’s party given the way the Germans are made?

It has to be a party for everybody, and that's a subtle difference. The big parties promise everybody everything and that's means they don't have the guts to deal with proper structural reform.

But people vote for them.

That's true. But fewer people are voting for them. And that certainly doesn't mean what they're doing is right. The fact that we are not managing to cut subsidies is linked to the fact that both the big parties, and unfortunately also the Greens, aren't talking to their own people and telling them things can't go on as they are. We can't continue spending more money on subsidies than on education, science, research, on training the younger generation - it is completely the wrong economic approach.

You raised the topic of cutting subsidies...

We must move towards completely dismantling subsidies - and that counts for all subsidies. They have to be the exception, to accompany structural change. To ensure, for example, that the edge is taken off the social effects of structural change. That's the decisive factor when dealing with particular emergency situations - that's when we need subsidies. But in Germany, subsidies are used as a solution to everything. That's why we need a staggered reduction by a certain percentage every year. And we have to put a time limit on subsidies -they should not be handed out indefinitely.

Do you get the feeling Germany is starting to move forward?

Not as quickly as it should be. The German people are way ahead of the politicians. There aren't enough bold decisions being made in German politics. Anything the government is trying now is only about 10 percent of what Germany needs. If the other parties start to realize that German society is ready for large-scale structural change so that the generations after us can live as well as we do, so that we will still be a wealthy country in the years to come, then I'm optimistic that the process of change will speed up.

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