- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

BERLIN — The notion of a Teutonic Margaret Thatcher to reverse Germany’s increasingly sclerotic economic performance is gaining ground among some influential thinkers.

The Thatcher debate continues as the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder survived a crucial vote in parliament yesterday on his controversial package of economic reforms, including cuts in unemployment benefits and taxes, in an effort to inject some dynamism into Europe’s largest economy.

Economists, journalists and writers have trumpeted the former British prime minister’s legacy as the only hope for a nation mired in recession. It is beset by a growing list of financial problems, although living standards remain among the highest in Europe.

The seriousness of Germany’s debate is indicated by the fact that many of those joining Mrs. Thatcher’s fan base in recent months describe themselves as liberals.

They say she has a lot to teach Germany as it struggles against low growth and high unemployment.

“It has now become a fashionable part of political debate in middle-class circles to call for a German Margaret Thatcher,” one financial commentator wrote in one of about 40 articles in the German press dedicated to the former leader in the past three weeks alone.

The Thatcher adulation culminated last weekend in the award to her of the international prize of the Friedrich August von Hayek Foundation in Berlin for her reforms.

Most publicity has been given to a 33-year-old London-based German historian, Dominik Geppert, whose book “Maggie Thatcher’s Radical Cure — a Recipe for Germany?” has become a best seller. Comparing the state of Britain in the 1970s with that of Germany today, Mr. Geppert wrote: “The first lesson has to be: face up to reality, even if it’s painful. … In the future in Germany [as in Britain], the state of someone’s teeth or glasses will give a strong indication as to how much they earn, whether we like it or not.”

Mr. Geppert has suggested that Germany’s answer might be in the person of the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel, who last week presented the most extreme reform proposals of any German politician, advocating a radical overhaul of the welfare system.

It led critics to accuse her of wanting to abandon Germany’s enviable social structure, but Mr. Geppert said: “If she succeeds, she could become our Maggie Thatcher.”

Yesterday, the Bundestag, or lower house, backed cuts in jobless benefits, plans to bring forward $18 billion in tax cuts to 2004 and an increase in tobacco duties that would add around 33 percent to the price of a pack of cigarettes.

In a bid to win over left-wingers in his Social Democrats, Mr. Schroeder softened the benefit cuts, a key part of his “Agenda 2010” reforms, and threatened to quit if they robbed him of his slender nine-seat majority.

Even after the hard-won victory, most of the reforms are certain to be revised as they must get through the Bundesrat, or upper house, where opposition parties have a majority, meaning two more months of uncertainty for Mr. Schroeder.


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