Reforms of Germany's social welfare state have gotten under way and are certainly not contributing to the government's popularity. But it's in the opposition's best interest to cooperate ahead of the 2006 elections.
No options, really
Anyone with visions should go see a doctor, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said. His successor, Gerhard Schröder, seems to think so as well. It's been a year since the chancellor stood before parliament and announced his so-called "agenda 2010," his social welfare, health care and labor market reform package.
Taking stock on Thursday, Schröder seemed much more sober: It's the right thing to do, even though not everything happened the way it was supposed to. We've done a bad job conveying the message to the people.
Overall, the government's not done too well with the reforms and that's why there's no time for visions any more. Schröder doesn't say it like that, but it's tangible. The chancellor knows that he doesn’t have much time left to regain the public's trust until the next general elections in 2006. He also knows how little progress there has been in terms of structural change.
Shooting the messenger
Still -- since introducing agenda 2010, the government's got something that it was missing before: A common theme. Painful reforms are necessary even if they're unpopular. The government's massive drop in public opinion ratings isn't only a result of the fact that people like to shoot the messenger.
It also has to do with the fact that not all groups within German society have been asked to make sacrifices to the same extent. Horrible technical mistakes, such as those during the rebuilding of Germany's federal labor office or the truck toll system, also play a role. They're contributing to an image of the government's inner conflicts and lack of orientation.
On Thursday, Schröder established a framework for bringing about his reforms: We have to react to globalization, we've been doing well for a long time, but we don't want to lose everything to a blind neo-liberalism. The chancellor clearly drew a line between himself and the opposition, who want to do away with job protection measures.
Waiting in the wings
Merkel, left, and Schröder, right.
But what about Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkel? She must have been tempted to tear the government apart. Instead, she lauded Schröder's agenda as a first, albeit too small step in the right direction. She signalled a willingness to cooperate. Merkel knows, how difficult it is to introduce reforms in a country which has been used to distributing surplus for the past 50 years.
Merkel's the favorite in the polls right now: The more painful reforms get done until 2006, the better, she might think. Cooperation seems better than confrontation in that situation. Germany's recent health care reform has shown that negative aspects of a compromise reached between government and opposition will be blamed on the former. The more Germans associate the current problems with the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, the better.
"You might be on top now, but just hold your breath," was the chancellor's silent message. "That might be true, but we're on our guard," the opposition leader countered. It's clear that the reforms cannot be avoided. But at the moment, that's the best news coming from crisis country Germany.