EU in crisis: Bonn opposition rounds on Schroder's handling of crisis

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The Independent Online
THE GERMAN government was accused yesterday of botching its duties in Europe and of pushing next week's European Union summit in Berlin to the brink of failure.

Such criticism has been levelled before by Germany's opponents in Europe, but this time it was voiced by Gerhard Schroder's opposition, which traditionally stands shoulder to shoulder with the Bonn government on important European matters.

"From every capital in Europe we have been hearing all week that the German Presidency has worked extremely poorly and had been extremely badly prepared," said Wolfgang Schauble, leader of the Christian Democrats. "You are hurting Europe when you do such bad work."

The attack came during the first Bundestag debate on the EU since the mass resignations in Brussels, and appeared to take Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister, by surprise. With Helmut Kohl, the undisputed champion of EU integration, sitting silently in the back benches, Mr Fischer appealed for bipartisan support, but got none.

Mr Kohl's successors feel the administration has its priorities wrong. Left with the task of sorting out the mess in Brussels, the government continues to insist that Europe's leaders must reach an agreement on reform before addressing the question of who should be the new Commission president.

"If the EU doesn't do its homework in the current situation, it would appear incapable of acting and politically split, and this would lead to a regression into national selfishness," Mr Fischer told parliament. "A failure in Berlin would endanger the timetable of expansion," he warned, referring to the queue of applicants waiting for the EU to sort out its budget and institutional reforms before they can join. But Bonn has been criticised both abroad and at home for pushing its own budget rebate too hard.

Though the claim for a reduction was first made by the Kohl government, the Christian Democrats, who now find themselves in opposition, say Mr Schroder lacks his predecessor's finesse, and is therefore endangering a deal.

For the first time, Mr Fischer hinted yesterday that Germany was prepared to lower its sights in its growingdesperation to reach a deal. Acknowledging that Germany would remain the largest EU contributor, the Foreign Minister appeared to settle for a token reduction.

"What is decisive is to achieve a fairer distribution of the burden," he said. That would mean Britain paying a little more and Germany paying a little less. Now only the final figures need to be haggled over. "A compromise is in sight," Mr Fischer said.

Germany appears ready to loosen its grip on the agenda in Berlin, allowing time for a discussion on who should succeed Jacques Santer.