Timidity and inadequacy on the political stage

Over the last couple of weeks, Prime Minister Costas Simitis has been monotonously reiterating – and attempting to impose upon the media – the conviction that he is undertaking significant political initiatives which actually relate to nothing more than the most insignificant aspects of politics. It would be useful to use as a yardstick the decisive reforms currently being implemented in the two leading European Union members, Germany and France. In Germany, the Social Democrat Chancellor Schroeder managed – with the backing of the Christian Democrats – to convince German citizens to accept radical reforms to the country’s social security system, as the social security and pension funds and businesses were no longer able to finance the system. Naturally, such reforms – affecting, as they do, many benefits enjoyed by those with insurance policies – has a political cost; but as a major structural change it had a positive impact on the markets. Earlier, Schroeder’s government, clashing with the country’s friendly and sturdy unions, refused to accept a reduction in working hours in Germany’s eastern states. Now it is trying to complete tax reforms in favor of businesses in order to give the country fresh impetus for development. In France, Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s conservative government clashed with the mighty civil servants’ union, equating the number of years they must work before they can gain eligibility for a full pension with those required of private sector employees. In the future, public sector workers will receive their pension after 41.5 years of work compared to the previous 37.5-year limit. Despite the reactions it provoked, the French government imposed the decisive reform, for the benefit of the country, bringing it into conflict with the bulk of part-time contract workers in the cultural sector whose privileges it decided to severely restrict. Examining the situation in France and Germany helps us grasp the real significance of political initiatives and decisive reforms. The last time Simitis’s government focused on long-overdue structural changes was when it tried to reform the country’s social security system – a venture it abandoned halfway through, following pressure from trade unions and certain party cadres. Now, Simitis talks about political initiatives in reference to proposed changes to the electoral law – which in no way affects our economic and social reality – or in reference to the «social charter,» which can be interpreted here as «a package of pre-election benefits.» With empty state coffers, and having wasted a crucial four-year term, the only thing the government is now seeking to achieve is to limit the extent of its losses in the next elections. As for major structural changes in the way the government operates, industrial relations, pension reform, tax on businesses, the fight against the entanglement of certain businesses with the government and ruling party, Simitis’s Socialist government would never dare to attempt such things.