After a brief economic upswing fueled by unification, the Federal Republic was quickly overcome by the unresolved economic and social problems of previous decades. Unification and the insistence on continuity allowed Germany to make a seamless transition from the old to the new republic and helped the country maintain political stability, but the approach also meant that Germany missed an important opportunity to pursue plans for social and economic reform. This strategy would take its toll.
For years, calls for significant reform have filled the pages of newspapers and the speeches of opinion makers like no other subject. Unlike the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, which held out the promise of more democracy, social services, and education (and thus found widespread public support), today’s reforms bring the prospect of greater completion and fewer social benefits. Therefore, they provoke resistance and protest time and again. In the face of higher national debt, persistent structural unemployment, slow economic growth, low birthrates, and the aging of the population, not to mention global competition, practically no area of politics has escaped the call for reform. Subjects that are (or have been) under review include: the financing of pensions and health insurance, the restructuring of the labor market and social welfare, the revamping of educational policies, and the reorganization of the relationship between the federal government and the states.
The now familiar term “reform gridlock” [Reformstau] was coined back in 1997 and became the word of the year; the term was eventually joined by other catchwords, such as “paralysis” [Lähmung], the “German disease” [deutsche Krankheit] and the “immobilized republic” [gefesselte Republik]. These expressions attempted to capture a basic condition that was replete with contradictions. Although problems were identified and the desire for reform clearly articulated, the proposed solutions fell short of expectations. Commentators suggested various reasons for this. Some believed that the cause could be found primarily in the so-called inter-linkage trap that dominates the political system of the Federal Republic. The term refers to the fact that politics occurs on various levels and that these levels depend on one another (i.e. are linked) in decision-making processes. This kind of political system demands a negotiative brand of democracy that seeks broad consensus and therefore usually proceeds at a snail's pace. In discussions of the inter-linkage trap, the relationship between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (the lower and upper houses of parliament), and the use of the Federal Constitutional Court as a political instrument often emerge as the subject of criticism. In explaining the failure of the government to find appropriate solutions to the question of reform, others emphasized that the political class is too set in its established patterns of thought, doesn’t do enough to communicate reform strategies to the citizenry, and is incapable of assuming a leading role. The reform debate has been infused with ideological meaning and used to fan the flames of partisan squabbles. The position of the citizens has not been free of contradictions either. On the one hand, they have been critical of the obvious impotence of politics; on the other hand, they have vehemently defended their own entitlement levels (30). The less that happened, the more threatening the future scenarios became.
(30) A thorough account has been given, among others, by Helga A. Welsh, “German Policymaking and the Reform Gridlock,” in David P. Conradt et al., eds., Precarious Victory. The 2002 German Federal Election and its Aftermath (New York and Oxford, 2005), pp. 205-19; and Hans Vorländer, ed., Politische Reform in der Demokratie (Baden-Baden, 2005).