New Chancellor, old ways

If Germany is to remain competitive and to create new jobs, it needs... Thatcherism with a human face

"THIS IS a historic moment" a stalwart German Christian Democrat whispered to me as Helmut Kohl mounted the stage at the party headquarters in Bonn. As if it needed saying! Given the Christian Democrats' bad defeat, we all guessed that, after 16 years in power - 16 years that changed the world - the giant of Oggersheim, the Chancellor of German unity and European unification, would be stepping down. When the cries of "Helmut! Helmut!" had finally abated, he gave a dignified short speech saying he would cease to be party leader as well as Chancellor.

For Germany's conservatives, this was like Mrs Thatcher's departure and last year's electoral disaster rolled into one. Like the British Conservatives, many Christian Democrats had felt the defeat coming. But the scale of it was still a shock - especially since the opinion polls had shown them catching up. As in Britain, people simply felt those in power had been there too long. They got bored with the same old faces. Boredom is an underrated factor in politics.

Kohl is the last great European statesman of the 20th century. As I watched him take his leave, I thought of a memorable conversation we had a few years ago. At one point he took my breath away. "Do you realise," he said, "that you are sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolf Hitler?" The point of this startling, even shocking, remark was that he - the first Chancellor of a united Germany since Hitler - was going to do everything quite differently. Whereas Hitler had tried to put a German roof over Europe, he was determined to put a European roof over Germany. This amazing sally encapsulated several ingredients of Kohl's greatness: his acute instinct for power, his historical vision and the bold simplicity of his strategic thinking. To that we must add tactical adroitness, party-political cunning and, not least, vast physical stamina.

Sunday's election was not only the end of this gargantuan phenomenon. It was also the end of the Bonn republic. Next year the government will move to Berlin. As Isherwood didn't write: "Goodbye to Bonn". Walking up the modest dual carriageway which is the spine of the dank Rhineland city, with cheerful crowds thronging the pavements, their attention soon turning back from the election to a rock band, beer, and the Formula One Championships just up the road, I felt a pang of regret. For the Bonn republic has been a good Germany, perhaps the best Germany we have ever had. And in this election it proved the maturity of its quiet, civil democracy. Not only did the German voters once again reject the extremes of left and right, despite 4 million unemployed. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, they also changed the government as the direct result of a general election. According to the winner, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder, this, rather than Kohl's departure, is the reason it may deserve the title "historic".

As I write, the triumphant Social Democrats and the environmentalist Greens announce that they will open the coalition talks that precede the formation of any German government. Assuming these are successful, the two parties together will have a comfortable majority. Let me make three guesses about this "Red-Green" coalition which, under Chancellor Schroder, and soon in magnificent new Berlin offices, would take Germany into the next century.

My first guess is an optimistic one. It has to do with so called "foreigners" living in Germany. The only disturbing element in this election campaign was the popular hostility to these "foreigners" that it revealed, especially in east Germany. To be sure of tumultuous applause, a politician had only to say something about foreigners "not abusing our hospitality" or "respecting our laws and ways". On the streets of Berlin the posters of a far-right nationalist party proclaim simply "Criminal Foreigners Out!"

This is a problem that Germany has made for itself. Whereas Britain has a very restrictive immigration policy but then is quite liberal in granting British citizenship, Germany has been extremely liberal in taking people in but very restrictive in granting them German citizenship. The result is that a staggering 7 million people live as "foreigners" in Germany.

Now the Greens are admirable on this. They say: if a Turkish worker has lived here for years carrying out all the duties of a citizen, then he should have all the rights of a citizen as well. So my hope is that Germany may finally get a more normal, liberal citizenship law, as in Britain and America, with the main criteria being place of birth or long-term residence, rather than ethnicity. And high time too.

My second guess is more pessimistic - for Germany, though perhaps not for its competitors. Helmut Kohl probably did larger things for his country than Margaret Thatcher did for hers. (To be fair, larger things needed doing. The United Kingdom did not need to be reunited; rather the reverse.) But Kohl failed to do precisely those big things that Thatcher did: reducing the power of the unions, privatisation, deregulation, lowering direct taxation, cutting public spending and so forth. Now Gerhard Schroder fought a campaign of Blair-like discipline and razzmatazz. But to be a Blair in office, you need first to have had your Thatcher.

If Germany is to remain competitive and to create new jobs, it needs some of that medicine: Thatcherism with a human face, so to speak. I think Schroder himself understands this. But in his own party the old left is much stronger than it is in New Labour. Not he but Oskar Lafontaine is party leader, which is rather as though Blair were Prime Minister but John Prescott were Labour leader. Schroder won older voters from the Christian Democrats by promising to restore their pensions. He also says that he will defend the welfare state and deliver "social justice". Meanwhile, the Greens have an agenda very far removed from neo-liberal economics. They want punitive taxes on petrol, for example. This does not add up to the political basis for reforms that German business leaders think are essential.

Finally, a guess about Europe and the implications for Britain. At the moment, it seems likely that Joschka Fischer, one of the most effective self-styled "realists" among the Greens, will become Germany's new foreign minister. This may be bad for concerted military action under Nato auspices in places such as Kosovo, since the Greens still have an influential pacifist wing. But it is unlikely to change the main lines of German policy in Europe.

Here, victory for the "German Blair" will give the British Government new hopes of building a Franco-German-British triangle instead of the exclusive Franco-German axis. Schroder himself has made a nod in this direction. I think there is some basis for these hopes, less because all three governments are now of the left, than because the successor generation in German politics is simply cooler and more hard-nosed about Europe than were post-war Euro-enthusiasts such as Helmut Kohl.

Schroder himself was initially sceptical about European monetary union. Like so much else about him, it is hard to know whether this was a matter of personal conviction or simply trimming to public opinion. Now, of course, he'll go through with EMU and try to make it work - as should we. And his inaugural speech may still contain the usual visionary Euro-rhetoric. But unlike Kohl, he won't in fact be pursuing a personal vision of ever closer political union. This, together with the themes of flexibility, subsidiarity and eastward enlargement of the EU, makes common ground for a Blairite Britain.

Yet Blair will have to work at it. There remains the hard fact that Germany and France are inside the inner core of monetary union, and we are not. There is a great battle ahead about Germany's outsize contribution to the EU budget. And as I write these lines, German television reports that Schroder will definitely make one foreign trip even before becoming Chancellor. It is - you guessed? - to Paris. Like a chip off the old block, a leaf off the old Kohl.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect