Austerity to follow burghers' big deal

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Germany's governing Christian Democrats wound up their national conference yesterday with a stirring call to brace themselves for austerity, shortly after they voted themselves free hamburgers.

The delegates gathered in Hanover approved a motion to allow McDonald's to sponsor future events by supplying Big Macs gratis, and were then lectured on economics by the Finance Minister, Theo Waigel. "These are damned tough times, and we have to tackle them together," he said.

Wolfgang Schauble, the deputy leader, set out reforms that the government plans to implement after the next elections in 1999. The budget would be cut by DM30bn (pounds 13bn), 8 per cent of current expenditure. Where the savings would come from he did not say, though he indicated that welfare spending would be severely curtailed.

The tax system, described by another motion as "unfair and too complicated", was to be overhauled. Loopholes would be closed and tax breaks and subsidies would disappear.

The good news was that everybody would pay less tax. The top rate would come down from 53 per cent to 35 per cent, while those now paying nearly 26 per cent would only forfeit a fifth of their wages. It is something to look forward to, though when the new tax system will come into effect is a source of intense debate within the coalition.

The Free Democrats, who like to pretend that they do more than just make up the numbers Chancellor Helmut Kohl requires for his majority, want the reforms to begin in 1998. The CDU is less optimistic that it can find the sums, and is hoping not to begin the greatest project since German unification until a year later.

Free Democrat sniping from the benches has angered government heavyweights, and there are times when the coalition resembles a squabbling family. Mr Waigel used the opportunity of yesterday's appearance to lash out again at his liberal colleagues. "There can't be two different roles in the coalition, with one side doing the dirty work in the quarry while the other side sells the marble," he said to applause.

That was, however, the limit of rancour at the event. One delegate did appear to dissent from the general mood of complacency - calling as he did for "no Mickey Mouse policies" - but the vast majority supported their leaders. There was no debate about Europe, for instance, and other contentious issues were also swept under the carpet. Left-wing CDU members had prepared a resolution urging that long-standing foreign residents should be given German passports, but somehow the issue never found its way to the conference floor.

Mr Schauble set the tone by warning of a "catastrophe" if European Monetary Union failed, and Mr Waigel assured delegates that there would be no tinkering with the Maastricht criteria. Everybody went home happy.