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CDU leader says currency union will go ahead Germans defend currency union against sceptics

Wolfgang Schauble, a potential Chancellor, tells Steve Crawshaw why he believes EMU will succeed
Bonn - "Germany has taken many decisions since 1945 - joining Nato, for example - without taking notice of opinion polls. We can go against current majorities in opinion polls. And, afterwards, we go on to win the elections."

Thus, Wolfgang Schauble, the man nominated to succeed Chancellor Helmut Kohl, dismisses the widespread suspicion of a single European currency, which would get rid of the beloved German mark.

Perhaps because he was talking to a British newspaper, Mr Schauble could afford to be blunter than he would dare to be on German television.

Speaking ahead of the party conference of the governing Christian Democrats, which begins today, Mr Schauble refused to budge a centimetre towards the sceptics: "We have signed and ratified the Maastricht treaty [ie, including a timetable for monetary union]. We're committed to it. And opinion polls change nothing in that."

In an interview with the Independent, Mr Schauble was determined to dispel any doubts about the feasibility of monetary union, a subject which will be on the agenda this week. Mr Schauble still wants to convert the non- believers: "It's a question of political priorities. In Germany, too, it hasn't been easy. In the British press, it was considered impossible that Germany would fulfil the criteria for monetary union [because of the huge debt burden of German unification]. But we managed. We think if others make efforts, they can do it".

Popular German doubts, he argued, will be dispelled in the end: "We must make it clear that a European currency will play a stabilising role."

He is not bothered by the furore unleashed last month by the Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, who was dismissive about Italy's ability to meet the targets. The Italian government was furious and the lira went into free fall. But Mr Schauble, Germany's chief strategist on Europe, insists that Mr Waigel was merely stating the obvious.

Mr Waigel's comments to a closed parliamentary committee were buried in an official parliamentary newsletter. He was sceptical about Italy fulfilling the Maastricht criteria on inflation, debt burden, interest rates and budget deficit, by 1999.

The Italian government must have known that officials in Bonn have been making the same point for months. None the less, the drama exploded when a Reuters news agency dispatch highlighted Mr Waigel's remarks. The lira collapsed and Italy was enraged.

German officials suggest that Mr Waigel's comments may have forced the Italians to concentrate harder on the need to meet the criteria. Mr Schauble insists that the gospel according to Bonn remains constant: "First we want currency union to begin, as agreed in the Maastricht treaty. Second, we don't want the stability criteria to be weakened."

Mr Schauble, who is coming to Britain to lecture in Oxford next month, will probably have meetings with John Major and the leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair, during his stay.

He says he is not worried by the fear of Europe in some sections of the British Conservative Party, as was highlighted by recent remarks by the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo. He insists on Mr Major's Euro-friendliness, and says: "John Major has won through." He is optimistic also about Labour's pro-European policies, although he fears Labour might reduce its Euro-excitement in power: "There may be a difference between what a Labour leader says as an opposition leader and what he says as a prime minister."

The 52-year-old Mr Schauble is leader of the parliamentary floor group of the Christian Democrats. However, he wields more power than many ministers, probably including the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel.

A few days after German unification, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt, which left him wheelchair-bound.

There is a sotto voce debate within the Christian Democrats, about whether a wheelchair-bound Chancellor could do the job. More striking, however, is the extent to which his chair is now ignored in Germany.

Mr Schauble is not a man to be patronised. He drily notes: "The job of the federal chancellor is not designed for the reintegration of the handicapped. That must be acknowledged." He regards debate on the subject of physical difficulties as "legitimate". As he himself points out, however, he has already demonstrated that it is possible to carry out a demanding, high-profile job from a wheelchair. In that respect, he hopes that his presence in such a prominent post may have set an example that employers and society can heed.

Theoretically, he is still the successor-in-waiting to Helmut Kohl. Still, Mr Kohl, who said last year that he would not stand again in 1998, has long since backtracked from that position. Mr Schauble insists he is not bothered: "I'm not in a waiting room. I'm in my own room. I like what I do. And I've never regretted it for one minute," he said. Mr Schauble is not a man to say no to the Big One: "Being Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany wouldn't be boring, that's for sure." But he insists: "The question hasn't come up. And I'm glad that it hasn't."