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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December, 2003, 10:24 GMT
The chancellor's little red present

By Ray Furlong
BBC correspondent in Berlin

Commuters in Germany are getting an odd Christmas present from their chancellor this year: Gerhard Schroeder's "little red book".

It's not an ideological tract - but a small ruby-coloured booklet providing a basic guide to his government's social reforms, that is being handed out at railway stations across the country.

Agenda 2010
The book explains the reforms (Picture: German Embassy)
"This is the biggest change in terms of social reforms in the history of Germany. So we need to explain and explain again," says Bela Anda, the chancellor's spokesman.

After more than nine months of debate since they were first announced, the reforms go to the two houses of Parliament on Friday in what will be their final legislative hurdle before becoming law.

As well as a tax cut, they also contain changes in Germany's welfare state that many left-wingers within Mr Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) find hard to stomach.

Despite a predicted rebellion, the reforms are expected to be approved. But the reforms have baffled ordinary Germans - so the next battle is to explain them, and the booklet is part of a wider PR offensive.

"The idea behind the little red book and our poster campaign is to tell 82 million people what's happening and why," says Anda.

Emotions high

But the government insists it's not just lecturing. A special bus has toured the country with a television studio on board - recording the views of the public onto hours of video.

People are waiting for results in the labour market and the overall economic situation before deciding that the government is doing the right thing
Richard Hilmer, Infratest dimap polling agency
"Most of the people take our Agenda 2010 booklet as information about the basic lines of the reform politics," says Wolfram Wickert, who has travelled with the bus.

"But we also find people who attack us. Emotions are running so high because people think the social security we built up over the last 30 years is fading away, and because they are personally touched by poverty."

This perception that the welfare state is being destroyed comes as Germany struggles with ballooning public debt, economic stagnation, and a stubbornly high unemployment figure - more than four million people.

All this has made the government deeply unpopular. Opinion polls put the SPD on around 25 percent support, compared with around 50 percent for the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU).

The Chancellor says one thing in the morning and another thing in the afternoon - it's enough to make people completely gaga
Martin Buchholz
So can a PR campaign turn things round?

"Communication is good - to tell people: we're trying to do something," says Richard Hilmer, Managing Director of Infratest dimap polling agency.

"But people are waiting for results in the labour market and the overall economic situation before deciding that the government is doing the right thing."

Parliamentary obstacle

Another problem is that the discussions about the reforms have gone on for so long - the public is simply fed up with it.

"There are all these compromises, proposals and counter-proposals, it's impossible to keep track of it all," says Martin Buchholz, a comedian whose act draws on public reform-weariness.

These reforms aren't that radical - the window of opportunity for real change has been missed
Economist Tilman Brueck
"The chancellor says one thing in the morning and another thing in the afternoon. It's enough to make people completely gaga."

Buchholz's stand-up routine has his audience in stitches. But there is a serious point behind the comedy.

The long journey Agenda 2010 has made from proposals into law has fuelled a growing discussion in Germany about changing the political system itself.

The argument is that the two-chamber system, where the opposition can easily block government proposals, is preventing effective rule. The constant round of elections to Germany's federal states further stymies politics.

"These reforms aren't that radical. The window of opportunity for real change has been missed," says economic analyst Tilman Brueck.

"But because of the German political system, where so much compromise is always needed, they may represent the maximum that any government can achieve."

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15 Dec 03  |  Business
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30 Jun 03  |  Business


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