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Germany: The Sick Man of Europe?

HAMBURG: What has happened to Germany? It is only a few years ago that Mikhail Gorbachev convinced himself and his Kremlin colleagues that they had to accommodate Bonn over unification because Germany would be the main actor on the continental European scene. More recently, a hard-nosed French former central banker, Michel Aubert, published a book in praise of "Rhineland Capitalism", elevating Germany to a model society combining economic dynamism and social justice. Now that model is deflated, and Europe's supposed leading power is in the doldrums.

One reason for this is merely a temporary political deadlock. Chancellor Kohl's slender majority in parliament is insufficient to push through serious reform of the country's Byzantine tax system against the Social-Democratic opposition's majority in the Council of States, the second parliamentary chamber where Germany's regions participate in federal legislation. The country's highly developed federal structure, together with a lack of political leadership, is seen by many as the main culprit for the stalemate.

Yet political structures and inclinations are blocking change precisely because voters have been unwilling to grant either government or opposition a clear mandate. If only politicians were to blame, the solution would be easy: throw them out at the next election. The real source of Germany's malaise lies deeper: citizens and society are undecided. And while, of course, politicians should lead opinion, they also have to follow it to win votes.

Voters in their various ways have realized, longer probably than many a politician, that the "German model" with its short working hours, long holidays, secure and substantial pensions, social security and comprehensive health insurance for all could not last forever. People are prepared in principle to accept the sacrifices needed to streamline and modernize the present system -- provided these sacrifices are distributed fairly.