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Europe

Opinion: Aware of the Unavoidable

The Social Democrats approved Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's reform plans at a special party congress on Sunday. Further reforms may ensue, when the SPD finally decides where it's going.

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A new direction for Germany's Social Democrats?

Chancellor Gerhard's Schröder's reform package "Agenda 2010" received the blessing of around 90 percent of the delegates at the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) special party congress in Berlin on Sunday. In view of the passionate debates over the past weeks, the congress itself was downright tame. The delegates followed Schröder's lead, albeit unenthusiastically and in many cases with a lack of conviction, but most showed an awareness of the unavoidable.

The chancellor's arguments were well-known: work must cost less to create new jobs; the social welfare state must be reformed if it is to be preserved; if the opposition parties were in charge everything would be much worse. And the left responded with equally familiar objections: cutting into the social net doesn't create jobs; alternatives -- like a tax on assets -- exist; accepting the lesser evil isn't sufficient.

The divergent views describe what was really happening in the SPD on Sunday. It was a change of course -- not a genuine turning point, but still a programmatic adjustment that the party would have dismissed just a few years ago.

Still, the SPD had already -- quite pragmatically -- chosen this route before Sunday.

Playing with fire

The party congress delegates were playing with fire. A rejection of "Agenda 2010" could have led to Schröder's resignation; the end of the ruling Social Democratic - Green Party coalition would have been likely; the SPD would have been forced into the opposition sooner or later.

Naturally, the party chairman, Chancellor Schröder, bid for the delegates' approval, and he managed to muster some friendly words for the trade unions. Still, you couldn't get rid of the feeling that in Berlin the SPD started treading a path it was not really comfortable taking. After all, it was following in the footsteps of its sister parties in Sweden or the Netherlands.

Schröder held up the example of the French Socialists as a deterrent. They failed to make necessary reforms and, consequently, were forced out of power, he said. Such words have a strong impact on any politician concerned with toeing the party line. And it's true that the desire for reforms among the populace is pronounced -- certainly more pronounced than among many a trade union member.

At the same time, the SPD leadership shouldn't have any illusions. A debate about principles, about where the SPD is going, hasn't started. There may be no way around restructuring the social welfare state, but so far the party leadership has avoided discussing which tack the SPD could take in that respect. And that suggests that further cuts will follow in the foreseeable future.

In any case, that would jibe with Schröder's logic. By implementing Agenda 2010 and consequently lowering non-wage labor costs -- surely a necessity -- the unemployment level will drop -- but not significantly. It just won't be enough. According to this logic, the Agenda will have to be supplemented. And that means that the endurance test for the SPD has only just begun.

Heinz Dylong