Europe's New Path--and New Players

The social and political winds are shifting in France, Germany, and Italy. In recent days, efforts by Germany's IG Metall union to drastically cut working hours in eastern Germany are backfiring. Public opinion, typically tender toward unions, is increasingly fed up with the economic and societal costs of strike action. It's the same story in France, where for the first time in memory, demonstrators have filled the streets of Paris and other towns in protest at how organized labor is blocking government reform plans. And in Italy, legislators have swept away some of the more rigid labor regulations in a bid to perk up the economy. These three countries are the core of Continental Europe, which until recently was most resistant to change and reform. Without a doubt something is stirring in Europe.

In fact, the political climate for serious reform in Europe hasn't been this favorable for decades. A mere eight years ago, France was brought to its knees by crippling strikes when the government tried to force through pension reforms. Now, general strikes against a new round of reforms are largely proving unsuccessful. In Germany, the governments of both the Left and Right have never seriously tackled the hot-button issue of labor flexibility. But German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder now feels sufficiently emboldened that he is pushing through his Agenda 2010 of economic reforms. He's also planning to bring forward a series of tax cuts.

Europe is on the cusp of great change, and BusinessWeek takes a look at 25 remarkable individuals from government, companies, and unions -- who are leading the charge. They are this year's Stars of Europe. Latvian bankers, a German regional government minister, the head of a French university, and a Turkish industrialist -- all are driving change in their fields. And their battle to get Europe moving again, thanks to what's going on around them, may now be much less of an uphill one.

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