08/24/2007 02:25 PM

Berlin Brainstorms in the Boondocks

Merkel Calls For Prosperity for All

Holed up for two-day talks at a Baroque palace near Berlin, Germany's grand coalition government reached a far-reaching agreement on combating climate change and discussed measures to make the benefits of the current upswing accessible to all.

The idyllic Meseberg Palace near Berlin is the venue for the cabinet's two-day retreat.

The idyllic Meseberg Palace near Berlin is the venue for the cabinet's two-day retreat.

Germany Inc. may be humming along very nicely at the moment, but it still does the executive board good to get out of the city for a rural brainstorming retreat once in a while. And so Germany's grand coalition cabinet decamped to a Baroque palace in the village of Meseberg north of Berlin for a two-day meeting to plan its remaining two years in government.

There were fears that the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) might play hard ball with their conservative coalition partners in an attempt to re-establish their identity and boost their flagging poll ratings. But it appears that the nice weather and idyllic surroundings contributed to harmony within the cabinet, and there were few signs of conflict coming from the coalition.

At the closing press conference on Friday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for steps to make sure the current economic upswing would benefit the entire population. "We don't want to leave anybody behind, that is our goal," she said.

The cabinet wrote in the meeting's closing statement that securing and creating new jobs should be a "central goal" for the second half of the government's term. Efforts must be repeatedly made to guarantee Germany's prosperity, it wrote, saying the government will boost its efforts to improve child care and reform the low wage sector. Other priorities are improved defense against terrorism and the privatization of the rail company Deutsche Bahn.

Earlier, ministers announced on Thursday they had reached a wide-ranging agreement on combating climate change. Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who described the atmosphere at the talks as "very relaxed and friendly," told the German broadcaster ARD the agreement was an "enormous success" for the grand coalition. The 30-point program will make it possible to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by 35 to 36 percent in comparison to 1990 levels by 2020, Gabriel said. Economics Minister Michael Glos told ARD that the fine points would still have to be worked out when the law was drawn up, but that the goals were all agreed upon.

The cabinet also agreed Thursday to make it easier for engineers from the "new" European Union members to come to Germany to work in industrial sectors which have a particularly high demand for skilled personnel. There are currently strict restrictions on working in Germany for workers from the new EU states, which are mainly in Eastern Europe.

The cabinet gets down to business.

The cabinet gets down to business.

The meeting was overshadowed by the attack on eight Indians last weekend in the small Eastern German town of Mügeln, which has re-ignited the debate on how to fight right-wing extremism. SPD leader Kurt Beck called Thursday for a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party. However Glos told the news station NTV that he was against a ban, preferring to fight the party with political means. An attempt to ban the party in 2003 failed. Merkel too said at the closing press conference Friday that she was skeptical about a new attempt to ban the NPD, saying she did not want a repeat of the "disagreeable experience" of the failed 2003 bid.

Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen reported Thursday on state-sponsored programs to fight right-wing extremism. However she was criticized by Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee -- who is the government's commissioner for Eastern Germany -- for not doing enough to combat the problem.

The start of the meeting coincided with a piece of good news for Germany. The Federal Statistics Office announced Thursday that the country has finally recorded a budget surplus after years of deficits. The budget was in surplus by €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) in the first half of 2007, compared with a deficit of €23 billion in the same period of 2006, the office reported.

It is only the second time that this has happened since German reunification in 1990. The other surplus, in the second half of 2000, was due to exceptional income generated by the sale of mobile phone licenses. The move into the black is an encouraging sign for Germany, which has spent the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall channeling huge sums into rebuilding the former East Germany, with billions being spent on improving infrastructure and on welfare and pension payments.

The result, which has largely to do with the current upswing in Germany's economy leading to increased tax revenues, provides a further boost to Merkel, who is already eyeing the next election in 2009. A recent opinion poll shows that she is now more popular than any other post-war German chancellor.



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