Despite widespread criticism of his previous firebrand rhetoric, Westerwelle, far from backing down over previous remarks, went on the offensive, calling for the welfare debate to consider the entire system, not just the Hartz IV unemployment benefits.
“The welfare state has to become more targeted. Above everything else, we have to help those who cannot help themselves, especially children,” he told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
For that, a ”completely new beginning of the welfare state” was needed.
Westerwelle, who is also Foreign Minister and leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, added that the debate, which should be about raising and protecting children, was showing “downright decadent aspects.”
He said it was “an altogether cynical debate, if those in Germany who work, who get up, who are diligent, then have to apologise for wanting to keep even some of what they earn.”
Germans who chose work over welfare were becoming “the nation’s suckers,” he added.
Westerwelle’s comments were part of a feisty debate over the future of Germany’s cherished welfare state after the land’s highest court ruled that the strict Hartz IV system of unemployment benefits was essentially unconstitutional – a decision that could lead to a hike in payments.
They also came as Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen warned unemployment would keep climbing this year, probably peaking at about 4 million jobless.
Von der Leyen told Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the jobless rate would probably average about 3.7 million across 2010, up from an average of 3.4 million last year.
“We’re coming up to some tough months, in which we will reach the 4 million mark,” she said.
On Friday, the Federal Statistics Office released figures showing Germany’s economic recovery had stalled, with the economy failing to grow in the fourth quarter of 2009.
Von der Leyen, a member of Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, has been on the gentler side of the welfare debate, hinting that the tough reforms introduced in 2005 may indeed be too tough.
She credited the social market economy – Germany’s traditional model blending free market enterprise with firm government regulation and a strong welfare system – for minimising the social impact of the recession.
“If you consider Germany today in the global crisis in comparison to other countries, our social market economy has proved to be strong,” she said.
“The tradition in Germany of standing together and making sure no one falls without a safety net, has in the past been derided as a drag on our country. Today, with the economic crisis, we are envied for it.”
For his part, Westerwelle has come under heavy criticism, with some commentators claiming he is resorting to angry rhetoric to stir up his party’s voter base in the wake of dismal poll results.