Amid continuing protests over benefit cuts, Chancellor Schröder has sharply criticized his countrymen who he says take more than their fair share of state allowances. The comments have raised the ire of social groups.
Under fire again over controversial reform comments
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s interview in the Guter Rat consumer magazine on Friday echoes statements he’s made throughout the summer as he tries to hammer through controversial reforms to the country’s cumbersome social welfare state.
"In both the east and the west, there's a mentality which extends well into the middle class that you should claim state allowances wherever you can get them, even when there's an adequate income in the family," Schröder told the magazine. “No welfare state can reasonably expect to manage such a burden,” he added.
The chancellor underlined that the public at large realizes that the social system has to change, but that it has balked when confronted with concrete changes that impact them directly, and called for citizens to accept what he said was the inevitable.
Chancellor far removed from reality?
Thousands of protestors march against reforms in Leipzig
His comments follow weeks of protests, particularly in former communist eastern Germany, over tough welfare cuts that will introduce stringent means testing on those claiming unemployment benefits and will make people with a certain level of savings ineligible for welfare.
Popular anger has arisen in the country with as many as 80,000 people taking to the streets across the country in weekly protests every Monday. Schröder has been greeted by eggs and heckles as much as by cheers since announcing the reforms.
Predictably, the chancellor's comments on Friday triggered a heated discussion and drove another wedge between Schröder and social support groups who have largely denounced the reforms as being "socially unfair" and "forcing people into poverty."
Ulrich Schneider, head of the Paritätisch Wohlfahrtsverband, a leading German social welfare support group, told Berlin daily Tagesspiegel that Schröder's comments "indicate how far the chancellor is removed from the reality of these people,” who he says have to count every euro and pinch every penny. Thomas Broch, who heads German Caritas, also lashed out at the chancellor. “Schröder belittles the people who are already on the losing side of society,” he said.
Schröder: "Bitter reproaches from our children"
Government spokesman Bela Anda acted quickly to point out that Schröder was only referring to those who don’t need government support, but get it anyway. He stressed that applied as much to higher upper income groups who claim more than their share from government as it does to middle-income and lower-income people.
The negative reactions seem to have caught the government and supporters of reform off-guard, especially since the chancellor had made similar comments throughout his fight to trim the welfare state and loosen labor laws.
Several influential Social Democratic politicians have come to the Chancellor’s defense. Rainer Wend, chairman of the Bundestag’s committee for economics and labor, said the chancellor’s remarks were “dead on” and derided the outcry as " good old fashioned feigned fury", noting that the critique applies just as well to wealthy citizens who exploit tax loopholes.
Christian Democratic party (CDU) chairwoman Angela Merkel
Support for the chancellor has also poured in from the opposition camp. “There is certainly a tendency that some people have found they can live fairly well by relying on the social system and doing a bit of undocumented work on the side,” Angela Merkel, head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party told a television station. She added that people who truly need help often don’t apply for welfare.
For his part, Schröder again defended labor market reforms on Friday, saying they were necessary if Germany was to deal with the challenges of an ageing population and high labor costs, without imposing an excessive burden on future generations.
"I am convinced that if we don't start the reform process and conclude it within a decade, we will have to face bitter reproaches from our children and grandchildren," he said.