One hundred days of farce

Their performance is certainly no way to run a government, but full marks for entertainment
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The Independent Culture
FOR YEARS, Bonn's press corps, bored rigid like the rest of Germany, would muse about the possibilities of life after Helmut Kohl. "Imagine a Red-Green government," some funny man would say, "led by Schroder, and including Lafontaine and Joschka Fischer. Ha-ha."

Well, a hundred days have elapsed since this unlikely troika stepped into the reins, and we are still laughing. It would be unkind to suggest that we were privileged to witness a cock-up on every one of those days. This is, after all, Germany, where not even politicians work at weekends. But those autumn weeks when tax thresholds and ceilings were constantly Yo-Yo-ing up and down are unforgettable. The now-we-shut-them-now-we-don't discussion about the fate of nuclear power plants will remain for ever etched on our memory. And long may Oskar Lafontaine's self-destructive maraudings through Europe be remembered!

Perhaps it was unfair to expect some basic measure of competence from a party, the Social Democrats, that had been watching Mr Kohl from the sidelines for 16 years. And maybe their partners, the Greens, were entitled to a period of grace in which to lose their innocence. But it had always been said of the German political system that its federalist structure prevented greenhorns from reaching the summit in too indecent a haste.

Gerhard Schroder had two terms as Prime Minister of Lower Saxony - the first in the company of the Greens - "to learn the ropes of government". Mr Lafontaine had been running the, admittedly pipsqueak, region of Saarland longer than anyone can remember. The Greens had also served in Land governments. Yet the missive that landed closest to the target in this week's remorseless shower of opprobrium was the word "dilettantes".

That is not to say they have achieved nothing. Within days of taking over, the new government reversed the only two reforms that the Kohl administration had managed to push through in its twilight term. Back went sick pay and child benefits to their original level, just as Mr Schroder had promised to the electorate. Social justice was deemed to have been restored.

The other side of the economic equation - creating conditions in which businesses can prosper - will be taken care of by Mr Lafontaine. Or so we are told. Judging by the diligence with which the Finance Minister is pointing the finger at others - evil banks that set interest rates at a whopping 3 per cent, unfairly low taxes in other European countries - Mr Lafontaine is already convinced that his methods will fail.

But wait, there is the "Jobs Pact", an arrangement involving the unions and employers. The idea is that they all get together around Chancellor Schroder's kitchen table, and thrash out a deal on wage rises, overtime and staffing levels, sweetened with a little tax break here and there. Everyone goes home happy, unemployment falls, the government gets re-elected.

It could work. This is the way Germany has been run since the war, and the country has not done all that badly. If anyone can pull it off, it is Chancellor Schroder: friend of big business, superb deal-maker, an expert at smoothing over ruffled feathers, or knocking heads together when that's required. But surely this will not bring unemployment down by 1 million, a target Mr Lafontaine had set his government in an unguarded moment. For that would also need a comprehensive reform of the welfare state, making German labour affordable again. No such plan exists in Mr Lafontaine's drawer.

This could be another example of "style over substance", a charge levelled against Mr Schroder with monotonous regularity. It is "stylish", for instance, when the cabinet assembles in Berlin, as it did yesterday. There is no strong reason for it, except that it looks good, marking the Chancellor out as a man who cannot wait for the dawn of the "Berlin Republic". The move from Bonn to Berlin, due to take place after the summer, is Mr Schroder's Millennium Dome: potent symbol of his modernity, an official decree that henceforth all must have fun. "Berlin" in his vocabulary stands for youth, urbanity, raw energy and tolerance. In other words the very antithesis of the old order hallmarked by the geriatric ward of Bonn.

Surprisingly though, behind this stylistic edifice lurks a great deal of substance. Before Bonn empties in the summer, the Bundestag is set to consign to the dustbin of history the 1913 nationality law designed for Aryans. Up to 4 million "foreigners" will get German citizenship and the many rights that come with it. The myth of the homogeneous German nation will be broken; Germans will be confronted with the multiculturalism of their society. If the Schroder government were to do nothing else, this reform alone would be a huge achievement.

But there will be others. Regardless of all the Red-Green ding-dongs, the government of Europe's richest country has taken a big stride towards closing its nuclear power plants. The phase-out will proceed at a snail's pace, and there will always be a possibility that the next government will reverse everything. But the consensus against nuclear power is hardening, and German governments do not swim against the tide. One distant day, Germany's Greens may be able to point to this period as their finest; the moment when the global nuclear economy began to unravel.

There is also a chance, however remote, of a breakthrough on the foreign front. Mr Schroder cares little about Europe, and spends few sleepless nights worrying about the pace of EU expansion. He approaches the negotiating table without adopting the humble posture of his predecessors. But his business-like manner may be exactly what the squabbling band of European leaders needs at this moment. Mr Schroder is demanding a cut in Germany's patently unfair contributions. He will settle for considerably less than what he appears to be holding out for, in exchange for the long-awaited reform of the EU budget. And he wants all this completed by March, half- way through the German presidency of the EU.

But striking deals in Europe is child's play in comparison with the task of reaching a decision in the German cabinet. Since day one, the question of who runs Germany has remained pertinent. Mr Lafontaine, Finance Minister and Chairman of the Social Democratic party, thinks he does. Joschka Fischer, leader of the Greens and Foreign Minister, believes he is in charge of foreign policy - except the European bits which Mr Lafontaine has stolen. To complicate matters, Jurgen Trittin, the Green Environment Minister, labours under the illusion that he is responsible for nuclear power.

The person who really runs Germany is Bodo Hombach, the Chancellor's trusted troubleshooter, "New Centre" - aka "Third Way" - ideologue, and spin-meister. With Mr Hombach's help, the Chancellor has won every important policy clash so far. These days Mr Lafontaine only whispers about European tax harmonisation into his pillow. Mr Fischer's talk about a "United States of Europe" is scaling new heights of abstraction. And the other day Mr Trittin proudly proclaimed his humiliation over nuclear reprocessing as a triumph.

As long as everyone understands his respective role, things will run smoothly. Despite all the U-turns, many Germans think the government is doing a good job. In the polls, both the Social Democrats and the Greens have moved slightly above their election result.

The trouble is, each of the big players has an audience of his own to satisfy, and sometimes they over-act. Their collective performance is certainly not be the best way to run the government, but full marks for entertainment value. Guaranteed to make you weep.