The Berlin Wall.To be sure, this was a busy week for the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder. In addition to the obligations caused by a state visit of Queen Elizabteth II, which, not unexpectedly, took place in an atmosphere of tabloid turmoil on both sides of the channel, the autumn European summit in Brussels, and the political digestion of the US election, he managed to upset pretty much everyone in political Germany – and beyond (Bild.de) – with the most bizarre proposal to – sort of – abolish the German national holiday, October 3, in order to boost GDP growth and, as a consequence, eventually meet the fiscal criteria set out in the stability and growth pact.
Due to a number of reasons, Germany hasn’t met the criteria for three consecutive years, and has, recently, actively supported attempts to “interpret” the critera more flexibly – a move forcing economists like Barry Eichengreen (in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine) to conclude that “the pact is dead”.
I don’t think that the pact is dead – despite it’s disputed macroeconomic value, the German public remains a staunch supporter thereof. Interestingly, the additional budget constraints created by this belief is helping the German government pass the labour market reforms a considerable part of the same public is vehemently opposed to.
It is hard to believe that the Chancellor has lost his mind as suggested by many observers. While I suppose there is some truth to the claim that it’s more difficult to gauge the public’s reaction when just four people are making secret plans in the Chancellery, the public’s reaction to this proposal wasn’t hard to predict.
Not that I don’t think it would be entirely inappropriate to celebrate the German unity on every first Sunday in October and work on October 3 for its material realization. Even one of Schroeder’s most vocal critics, Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian state premier and leader of the conservative CSU, who is still clinging to the hope of getting another go against Schroeder in 2006, made a similar proposal a couple of years ago.
But if the year 2004 stands for anything in German politics, it is the realization that it is just as easy to tell a tale of two Germanies as it is to tell that of two Americas – although the punchlines would not be about sex, but about unemployment, despair, and the prospects of improvement. Despite having lived “together” for more than a decade, the understanding between East Germans and West Germans seems to have reached a historical low.
In the summer, a mild culture war broke out about a statement by German President Koehler that it would not be possible to reach equal standards of living throughout Germany anytime soon – and that it would be foolish for any politician to continue to play pretend. Recently, a satire magazine even founded a party with the explicit proposal to re-erect the Berlin wall.
Satire. Fair enough. But the grain of truth is that there are indeed more bricks in the wall now then there were a couple of years ago. Thus, no politician in his right mind would have floated a proposal to abolish the National Holiday now. And most certainly not without embedding it in a national discourse like the one I sketched out above.
So, the only reason for the proposal I can see is to pave the way to get something else from those who are vocal opponents now – probably a religious holiday in May. In Germany’s federal system, only two holidays are simple federal law – Labour day, and the National Holiday. All other holidays are either state law, or, if federal, need the state chamber’s, and thus the opposition’s, approval.
Apparenly, after the first outrage, more and more people are beginning to interpret Schroeder’s move in this way. As a precaution, the Churches have already vowed their staunch opposition to any, even regional, abolition of existing Church holidays.
Yet I doubt they will be able to prevail in the end. This time it’s for real – again. In 1994, the protestant “Bu?- and Bettag” has been abolished as a federal holiday (except for the state Sachsen-Anhalt) to pay for improvements in old-age care. The need to expand working time is undisputed by the opposition, Germany is getting more and more secular, and this would be a move that even unions would approve of because it would not diminish their power.
And now everyone is on record claiming the importance of the National Holiday.