Gerhard Schroeder in Prague: radical social policy reform is needed across Europe

05-10-2004

"I am convinced that if we want to save this aspect of European culture, we must change it. If we want to preserve our social security systems, which we have built up over the years, we must adapt to the new economic conditions." Those were the words of the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Prague on Monday. Europe-wide social policy reform was the focus of his visit to the Czech capital. Between meetings with top Czech politicians, he took part in a seminar on the subject alongside his fellow Social Democrat, former Czech Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla. The topic was a timely one for Mr Spidla, as in a few weeks he will be taking up the post of European Commissioner for employment and social affairs, getting his teeth into the problems of an ageing union beset by stubbornly high unemployment. Gerald Schubert from Radio Prague's German Section was at the seminar, and spoke to David Vaughan.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the former Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, photo: CTKGerman Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the former Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, photo: CTK "Both of them were talking about the challenges of the future concerning social policies, and both were talking about globalization in that context and demographic development. Concerning globalization they said there are a lot of possibilities to deal with the new challenges in the economic field, but it has to be balanced with political measures. Concerning demographic developments, especially the former Prime Minister and future Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, said that we are living in a society without children, and if we want to deal with the problem of social policy in future, we will have to find some ways to create new policy, for example, concerning health insurance."

But there is a certain irony, isn't there, in the fact that Mr Spidla, when he was prime minister, failed to push through reforms and failed to convince either his own party or parliament in the Czech Republic that he had an idea of how to solve these problems? Mr Schroeder in Germany is facing a similar crisis at home, in that he is not really managing to push through viable reforms to pull the country out of recession. So isn't there a certain irony in the fact that these two men were talking about how to solve problems that they themselves seem to be having great difficulty in dealing with?

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, photo: CTKGerman Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, photo: CTK "Yes, but the question is whether this irony is only concerning Schroeder or Spidla or whether this isn't a phenomenon that is concerning the whole European Union right now. I would say that they both - as quite powerful politicians - tried to show some ways of dealing with these future problems, and I don't think that we should limit it to for instance, what Spidla was achieving at home, because now he will be working at Brussels, he will be working in the European Commission and he won't have, for instance, the political struggles he's used to in the Czech Republic. So he will have political surroundings more agreeable to him."

Both these politicians are advocates of some form of social market economy. What arguments did they have to counteract the argument of the right that you need to dismantle the welfare state in order to create a new model?

"Actually what they said is exactly what you said, that it's difficult to find arguments for that. For instance, Schroeder pointed out two aspects to this question. He said that in rich societies it is very difficult to explain to people the necessity of reforms like that, just because of the fact that these societies are rich and nobody wants to lose parts of his or her wealth. The other thing was that he was talking about reforms where you could see the results in maybe a few years or maybe even a few generations."

05-10-2004