New Labour's German cousins use their tricks, but without their finesse

Early comparisons with Blair, pursued by Schroder himself, are turning out to be something of a burden
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The Independent Culture
IT IS so relaxing to visit Germany just before an election. They have not undergone the ruthless streamlining of a British election campaign, so you can still see the joins and watch senior politicians trip over loose wires their colleagues have thoughtlessly or deliberately left lying around.

The ambitious defence minister Volker Ruhe has just given an interview which implies - as many already suspect - that Wolfgang Schauble, the chancellor's wheelchair-bound crown prince, expects to succeed Helmut Kohl before the end of the next term. A very cross Helmut insisted he was "running as chancellor for the entire term. Full stop. End of story". Herr Schauble added that Herr Ruhe's intervention had been "bullshit".

This is an election campaign in which the spin doctors are mere first aid crews and the politicians still permit themselves to create muddle and misunderstanding without resorting to go-betweens to do it for them. Devoid of ruthless enforcement of a single message from the centre, the candidates run wild: my colleague Ken Livingstone would be in seventh heaven. Unlike Britain, no one thinks this is odd or reprehensible. Germany's pre-1871 division in to small, loosely connected territories and more recently into federal Lander, creates a mentality healthily resistant to centralisation.

In the east, Social Democrats campaign on the fond memory of Willy Brandt and his understanding of the east. Gerhard Schroder, the candidate for the chancellorship, is barely mentioned. His dry, Western manner and pragmatism produce scant personal following there.

Meanwhile, in west Berlin's Charlottenburg, a thoroughly bourgeois district full of lawyers and dentists, Chancellor Kohl's party poster reads, "Christian and Democratic, not godless and Marxist". The confrontational language is a bizarre hark-back to the ideological brutality of Konrad Adenauer's long years in power after the war.

Present choices are far less stark. Softened by decades of coalitions and an attachment to consensus reinforced by fear of the political fragmentation and blood-letting which allowed the rise of Hitler, modern Germany repels debate about the essential quandries of modern democracies. The recognition among both Christian and Social Democrats that state spending is too high to be sustainable and absurdly inefficient in many areas is not translated in to promises to do something about it.

Neither party is really sure that the electorate wants change. Herr Kohl presents himself on posters with the bland self-endorsement, "world-class chancellor", a reference borrowed from adverts for Mercedes-Benz, the most widely accepted guarantee of quality and admiration. After 16 years and a term in office, marked by failure to push through tax and other long-delayed reforms, the CDU is not the smooth ride it used to be.

The parallel with the last British election has been inevitable: a party grown tired in power challenged by a fresh face prepared to dispense with the more restrictive pieties of his own party. Around Herr Schroder cohere prominent figures of the 1968 upheavals who did not succumb to the lunacies of terrorism or end up as muesli-crunching malcontents talking endlessly about the need for grass-roots alternatives.

As in Blair's Britain, an ambitious, long-thwarted tribe can glimpse power. But while Blair, for all his superstitious caution about the 1997 election was always pretty confident about winning it, the German Social Democrats cannot be so sure of their fate in three weeks' time. A PR system leaves inordinate power with small parties. This election is something of a lucky dip. Whether Schroder can form his desired coalition with the Greens may depend solely on whether the east German Communists make it in to parliament.

Chancellor Kohl is much stronger than Major in his own party and has not had the uncomfortable role of matricide to contend with - an element which complicated John Major's post-Thatcher leadership from the start. Unlike Major, whose poll ratings remained flat as a pancake throughout a hopeless Tory campaign, Kohl's is recovering steadily, if probably not fast enough to guarantee anything better than a grand coalition - in which case he would quit.

Schroder, meanwhile, is less sovereign than Tony Blair. The SPD accepted him grudgingly as leader without the kind of fight for the soul of the party that Blair risked with the Labour Party over Clause Four. That leaves him open to the accusation that he is simply an opportunist, with no great crusade before or in front of him.

Debating with his rival, Kohl has complained, is like "nailing a pudding to the wall". Vagueness is Schroder's guiding principle; no sooner have you listened to one of his speeches than you feel, like a Chinese meal, that it is time for another.

The SPD has borrowed New Labour's pledge card and even the old trick of promising to reduce youth unemployment by 100,000 - which should hardly be difficult, given that Germany is emerging from recession. Otherwise the challenger's real message is "change without alteration".

Early comparisons with Blair, assiduously pursued by Schroder himself, are turning out to be something of a burden: as wearisome as being measured beside a flawless cousin, whose own shortcomings are too distant for German voters to perceive.

Most importantly for Blair's own future calculations, Schroder's reservations about the single currency have given way to an endorsement of the Euro - but one which is less heart-felt and more prosaic about the weakness of the project than the present political leaders.

He describes the Euro as a fait accompli without ever saying that he wanted it in the first place - which he did not.

While Theo Waigel, Germany's finance minister, unguardedly announces that "the Euro speaks German" - a quote which will not have gone unresented in France - Schroder hedges around his backing for EMU with talk of "further exertions" and difficulties. So if the single currency does have a storm- tossed early period, Schroder's approach will be more managerial and less philosophical than the overblown and uncritical enthusiasm of "EMU at any price" evinced of Kohl and Waigel.

The centre of gravity of the European debate would move towards the continued viability of the continent's united economic future and away from the commitment to political union which was Kohl and Francois Mitterand's original reason for pursuing a swift single currency.

The consequences of this switch in emphasis will be welcome to people like me who dislike the forced and opaque manner in which the EU has pursued deeper integration.

It will expose the Euro to the same judgmental criteria as any other economic and monetary project - a development which will test more rigorously New Labour's arguments on what should constitute sufficient reason for joining.

There will also be fewer excuses, greater anger and a markedly decreased German readiness to carry the costs if the project goes wrong. A Chancellor Schroder has no intention of being the fall guy for ex-Chancellor Kohl's European dream.

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