In its assessment of the debacle for Chirac/Raffarin in this weekend’s French regional elections the German newspaper S?ddeutsche Zeitung asked one pretty pertinent question:
“‘are European societies capable of stomaching unpleasant reforms?’ ”
Certainly the evidence would seem to make it a fairly reasonable question to ask. Sunday’s elections have been billed as a victory for the left, but equally we have only recently witnessed Gerhard Schroeder, seemingly unable to inspire sufficient confidence in his proposed welfare cuts, stepping down as chairman of the Social Democratic Party just before suffering a significant defeat in the Hamburg elections.
And only last Friday workers in Italy took to the streets to protest the latest in a line of pension reforms there.
In the French context Jacques Chirac’s room for manoeuvre is limited because of France’s pledges to bring its public deficit under control. It has agreed to reduce the deficit from 4.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2003 to 3.6 percent this year and to bring it below three percent by 2005.
So it may be that talk of right and left here is a bit misplaced: the vote is against whichever government happens to be in office, fails to achieve economic growth, and finds the messy problem of health and pension reform on its hands.
Some observers seem to want to suggest that the reason for the disatisfaction is the pace of the reforms: voters are ‘frustrated’ since the reforms are not proceeding quickly enough. This wouldn’t be my reading: they are ‘frustrated’ that the reforms are happening at all. They accept the ‘reality’ in the abstract, but don’t like that same reality once its implications are clear. They have been lead to believe that all of this can be achieved relatively painlessly, but in fact it isn’t that easy.
This at least could be the impression gained from the tens of thousands of German pensioners – some of them in wheelchairs, others leaning on walking sticks – who took to the streets yesterday to protest government pension reforms. In fact (in one form or another) Germany has some 20 million pensioners, and they form about a quarter of the population. It should not need underlining, of course, that they constitute a very important consituency among Germany’s active voters.
It’s not that I particularly welcome and relish in the reforms myself. I would rather they weren’t necessary. I think the welfare system we had was fine, brillant even, while it lasted, but it contained one fundamental flaw: it didn’t see the inversion in the pyramid. It didn’t forsee that rising generational cohorts would one day be followed by declining ones, and that this transition would in time start to threaten not only the foundations of the welfare system, but even the process of economic growth itself.
So, to end where I started, let’s go back to the S?ddeutsche Zeitung, and their conclusion that the resounding defeat for the conservatives in the French regional elections is:
yet another example of the European malaise that has already taken hold in Germany, Poland and Italy. All face the same key domestic troubles — a stagnating economy, unemployment and fear of an uncertain future, the paper wrote and added that if one is to believe the opinion surveys in these countries, people there are familiar with these problems and know that the creaking western European welfare state has to be reformed if it is to survive. Governments promising reform are elected, but then to fail to live up to their promises.