Politics: Kohl's foe may pull Britain into European inner circle

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The Independent Online
Forget the past - Britain's closest ally may soon be a German. Gerhard Schroder, a self-confessed Blairite, stands the best chance among the opposition of ending Helmut Kohl's 16-year reign. His victory, as he tells Imre Karacs, would herald a shift in the balance of power in Europe.

Any resemblance between the ambitious Prime Minister of Lower Saxony and the current resident of Number 10 Downing Street is purely intentional.

At 53, Mr Schroder is a young politician, at least by German standards. He looks great in front of the cameras, projects himself well as the embodiment of modernity, and has the courage to embrace changes that most of his Social Democrat comrades have been resisting all their lives.

He has bagfuls of charisma, is consistently rated as the most popular politician in the country, and probably has more enemies than all his colleagues put together.

If he wins elections due in September, he will break more than the German mould. Europe, he says, is ready for a realignment that would place Britain at the helm.

"My idea of Europe is that the Franco-German axis, which has always been important, should be turned into a German-French-British triangle.

"If you are to get into Europe, and you must, then you need what Tony Blair has demanded for Britain: a leading role - a place in the leadership.

"And that can only work in partnership with Germany and France. I think that is the right way ahead, especially since I believe that the British are on a more correct economic and political path than the French Socialists - or at least the majority of French Socialists."

The theme of France versus Britain recurs constantly. German Social Democrats must chose between the recipes of the two big leftist parties that came to power last year. The French way, proposing vast public expenditure on the unemployed, is favoured by Mr Schroder's rival, Oskar Lafontaine. Mr Schroder and most of the voters pin their hopes on improved conditions for business.

There is, however, a deeper cultural fault line running through Germany.

"North Germans are more pro-British," he explains. "South Germans are closer to the French. Lafontaine speaks good French. There is a difference in mentality that is also reflected in the political programmes." Mr Schroder is from Hannover in the north, and speaks excellent English.

In his blind anglophilia, the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony does not even see a flaw in the Blair government's position on monetary union. "I think new Labour are pursuing a highly intelligent policy," he says.

"They have offered the people a referendum before going into Europe. And they must prepare Britons for a positive vote in this referendum.

"The independence of the Bank of England, signing the Social Chapter and securing a seat in the Euro-X council which will govern the new currency were all steps in this direction.

"I think the purpose of this step-by-step approach is to get Britons used to Europe, and thus obtain a majority in this referendum in two or three years' time. And the interesting thing is, that this will give them time to see if monetary union works."

The latter is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Emu, but Mr Schroder has long been known for his scepticism of Europe's new "Monopoly money". Nevertheless, he sees no political mileage in campaigning against the euro, and expects the issue to remain marginal in the elections. By the time Germans go to the polls in September, he points out, the launch of the euro, probably with an initial 11 member states, will have already been decided.

He has, in any case, more immediate concerns on his mind. Elections are due on 1 March in Lower Saxony. If he wins handsomely, he thinks he will be "unstoppable" for the nomination as the Social Democrats' national candidate.

The latest polls show that in a straight run-off, Mr Schroder would be favoured by 53 per cent of Germans, and Mr Kohl by merely 30 per cent. The Chancellor's rating, weighed down by unemployment and the spectacle of government paralysis, is in free fall.

Mr Lafontaine, the champion of Old Social Democracy, is even more unpopular than the incumbent. He lost against Mr Kohl in 1990, and is a sure bet to lose again given half a chance.

That will not rule him out of the race, however. Mr Lafontaine controls the levers of the party, and will be the automatic candidate if his rival slips up.

Mr Schroder has said that if he gets 2 per cent less than his share of the vote in the last elections on his home turf, he will withdraw from the national contest.

The elections in Lower Saxony have thus become a "semi-final", with the Social Democrats picking the finalist soon after 1 March.

Chancellor Kohl will try to knock his only dangerous opponent in this round, and has pencilled in 10 campaign appearances. The latest polls show Mr Schroder cruising comfortably above the trap door. His only problem is that Mr Lafontaine insists on helping out.