Deutschmark uber alles 'is SPD's new slogan'

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The three heavyweights wrestling for control of the Social Democratic Party joined forces at last yesterday to attack Europe's gestating common currency. Under what critics say is the slogan "Deutschmark uber alles", the SPD leadership has launched a populist campaign against the government's goal of monetary union by 1999.

The first hints of the spectacular U-turn came earlier this week from Rudolf Scharping, the SPD's leader, and Gerhard Schroder, the party's aspiring leader. The third leadership contender, Oskar Lafontaine, joined the chorus yesterday, calling for an "improvement" in those aspects of the Maastrich treaty which deal with monetary union.

Faced with a gradual erosion of their electoral support, the Social Democrats hope to take on Helmut Kohl's government on the issue which seems to worry Germans most. A poll in the business newspaper Handelsblatt earlier this week showed that the proportion of voters favouring the abolition of the Deutschmark has fallen from 34 per cent in June to 27 per cent in September, with a steady 66 per cent opposing it

Their confidence cannot have been raised by the negative comments oozing out of the SPD headquarters. Mr Scharping led the attack by questioning the wisdom of surrendering Germany's national symbol for the sake of "just some idea". Mr Schroder was even ruder, describing the Euro-currency as "Monopoly money".

Yesterday Mr Scharping took the furore in his stride. "A stable currency has absolute priority over any timetable," he declared. "Whether a common currency comes in 1999 or a bit later is not decisive. It is more important that economic stability is guaranteed. Only then can we give up our D- mark."

The voters are fully aware that only Germany and Luxemburg can boast a stable currency, as defined by the Maastrich criteria. Members of Mr Kohl's government, firmly committed to monetary union in 1999, have rubbished the pretensions of the likes of Italy and Belgium. That leaves France the only plausible suitor, bringing on present trends a dowry that would tax even the well-heeled Bundesbank.

But critics charge that the SPD's sudden conversion owes less to economic considerations than to the party's struggle for survival. "Bar-room politics" the leader writers cried in horror, while Mr Kohl's office accused the SPD leadership of "trying to appeal to base instincts". Mr Schroder admitted as much when he boasted that the SPD had "at last found a national issue again".

For over a year now, the Social Democrats have been engaged in internal rows over economic policy, desirable coalition partners and where a left- wing party should be going in the 1990s. Under Mr Scharping, they have lost a string of important regional elections and are facing a stormy party congress in two weeks' time.

Languishing 15 points behind Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats in the polls, the Social Democrats have seized on the issue that will dominate the general elections in three years' time. As Germans go to the polls on the eve of monetary union, the mark in their pocket will weigh heavily on their decision.

That will not only put pressure on Mr Kohl to slow down, but it will also sow seeds of doubt among Germany's European partners. As Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, warned: "Anyone who questions [monetary union] purely for cheap populist reasons puts the whole integration process in doubt."