Be Bold, Berlin

It used to be that postwar Germany tried to keep its head down. Because of its history, it didn't want the world thinking it was unduly throwing its weight around. And no question, with the largest population and biggest economy in Europe, it's as heavy as its farmer's bread.

Over the decades, though, this stance has eased considerably. As Germany has learned thoroughly from its past, it's become comfortable with projecting its transformed self. So comfortable, that it now sees itself as a world leader, deserving of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Germany's comfort with leadership is a healthy development, but it's needed not just on security matters such as troops in Afghanistan or negotiations with nuclear-inclined Iran. Much of western Europe, including Germany, is in desperate need of reducing its expensive social welfare programs. But change-minded Chancellor Gerhard Schröder could be getting cold feet in bringing about such reforms.

One local election after another has battered his Social Democratic Party (SDP), as voters fail to see any economic upturn from his limited labor and welfare reforms. On Sunday, the SDP suffered a devastating loss in its stronghold, the industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The defeat prompted Mr. Schröder to make the unusual move of advancing national elections by a year, to this fall.

Polls favor the conservative opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which, on paper at least, has a more vigorous reform agenda. But having seen voter reaction to Schröder's "Agenda 2010," which passed in 2003 and called for cuts in ample jobless benefits, a freeze on pensions, and a larger patient contribution to health-care, it looks like the CDU won't run a campaign of tough love - not with unemployment at 12 percent.

But Germany can't afford to have its political leaders shrink from difficult change. The country's expected economic growth for this year is only 0.7 percent, continuing a very modest recovery after three years of stagnation.

Germany would do Europe - also sputtering with slow growth - a world of good if it led the way on reform. And not just on this subject. The continent has got the jitters about further European integration, seen in polls showing the French ready to reject a European Union constitution on Sunday. Should the French say non, the EU will need a champion to keep up the integration push.

Bold leadership is not beyond the Germans. During the cold war, Willy Brandt warmed the icy atmosphere with his Ostpolitik of realism toward the Soviet bloc. In 1989 and '90, when the Iron Curtain was breached and East Germany threatened to empty itself into West Germany, Helmut Kohl acted decisively on unification. Now is the time for Germany to stick bravely to the reform track, not veer from it.

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