Germany maps out its political future

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The Independent Online
BEHIND THE electrified gates of a provincial "embassy" in Bonn, Germany's government began to take shape yesterday as Social Democrats and Greens mapped out their path into the next millennium.

On the first day of coalition talks, the two sides set themselves a furious pace, in the hope that Gerhard Schroder can be inaugurated as Chancellor before the end of this month.

The top priority of the new government would be the fight against unemployment, the Social Democrat chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, said after the negotiating teams' first meeting yesterday. The first policy to be unveiled by the new government was a programme to create 100,000 training places and jobs for school-leavers, especially in the East.

The project, to be launched immediately after the government is formed, was to be modelled on similar initiatives by the Blair and Jospin governments, Mr Lafontaine said.

Mr Lafontaine and Jurgen Trittin, the Greens' chief spokesman, described the talks as positive and said the two sides were committed to tax cuts without burdening the state budget.

Disagreements remained, however, in important areas. Mr Lafontaine singled out the Greens' hasty timetable for nuclear plant closures, and their proposed "fuel tax". Mr Trittin mentioned the new nationality law for long-term foreign residents, to which both parties were committed, but the Greens were more inclined to generosity.

All decisions, the two sides stressed, would be dependent on the money available. Mr Lafontaine said the state's accounts must first be audited, because the projected revenue has been overstated by the outgoing government.

There will be further rounds of talks next week. The target date for the swearing in of the government is 27 October but, if the negotiators can shave a few days off that, then Germany will avoid the ignominy of having no one to send to the EU summit in Austria on the 24th. Helmut Kohl has no great desire to be subjected to the commiserations of his European friends, and plans to bow out on the 17th. As things stand, the most powerful country on the continent may have to be represented by Klaus Kinkel, the outgoing Foreign Minister.

His likely successor, Joschka Fischer, was therefore highly motivated to avoid that and speed up proceedings. To that end, the Greens agreed yesterday to leave the carve-up of ministries to last, and begin with easier problems.

It is an open secret, however, that the Greens will get two important ministries and possibly an additional token portfolio. As well as Mr Fischer becoming Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor, Mr Trittin, the leading Green left-winger, is currently slated for the environment ministry.

As expected, the Social Democrats are holding on to all "strategic" ministries. Mr Lafontaine has decided to grab Finance for himself, and Otto Schilly, an ex-Green defector to the SPD, will be in charge of Home Affairs.

Defence will naturally be kept out of pacifist Green hands, but no decision has been taken about who should run it.

Key Players in New Team

In a resounding vote of no confidence in the political class, Mr Schroder is filling some of the key seats with amateurs. Jost Stollmann, a millionaire computer entrepreneur, is likely to be given the Economics portfolio after impressing Mr Schroder with his ideas about competition, the omnipresent welfare state and modernisation.

The publisher Michael Naumann is to run a new arts or culture ministry. No stranger to controversy, Mr Naumann had the courage to speak out against the monstrous Holocaust monument that Helmut Kohl wanted to erect in Berlin. As there is no tradition of a federal culture ministry, Mr Schroder is likely to create some kind of portfolio at the Chancellery.

Bodo Hombach, the strategist who led Mr Schroder's campaign, is set to become Chancellery Minister, the powerful figure who guards the gates to Mr Schroder and controls the levers of state power. Already, it is becoming clear that Mr Schroder seeks to govern through a handful of trusted allies, bypassing the cabinet office inhabited by his rainbow coalition.