Bavarians lead fight for EU regions: Anti-Maastricht populism is on the march in Landshut and finds echoes among other Germans, writes Steve Crawshaw

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THE TREES are Christmas- card white and the streets are covered with a light coating of fresh snow, shallow and crisp and even. The stallholders are doing a brisk trade, selling traditional Advent wreaths and the bells of the 14th-century church of St Martin's ring out above the steep roofs. In Landshut, former Bavarian capital now a town of 60,000 inhabitants, it seems nothing can disturb the tranquillity.

But though the peace may be real enough quiet Bavaria is not against stirring things up internationally if need be. Recent rumblings in this huge and conservative Land, or regional state, may end up disturbing the aspirations of the political establishment in Bonn and elsewhere in Europe, more than could have been dreamed of until recently.

On the streets of Landshut, one hears enthusiastic support for Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian Prime Minister, who recently detonated a political explosion in Bonn with his strongly-worded warnings against a federal Europe. In Landshut and elsewhere the mood has turned. There are complaints that 'the administration costs in Brussels eat up everything', that the Deutschmark is endangered and that the pro-European policies of recent years have already 'gone into a dead-end street'. Maastricht has only just taken effect but already the backlash has begun.

Certainly, Bavarians remain proud of their separateness. Even advertisements within Germany for the products of the Bavarian Motor Works are phrased as if aimed at foreigners. 'What does Bavaria make you think of?' runs one BMW slogan over a picture of an old pair of lederhosen. The advertisement gives the thumbs- down to high mountains ('old hat') brass bands ('boring') and even the famous beer festival, the Oktoberfest, in favour of the 'high quality that has become a tradition, with us in Bavaria'. In souvenir shops, you can buy Bavarian residence permits, visas, and passports. Mr Stoiber insists that he is not against Europe as such. In an interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung last month, the Bavarian leader talked, however, of the need to 'slow down the process' of European integration. Mr Stoiber noted too that Bavaria had been an unwilling entrant into united Germany, back in 1871, 'more or less forced into the German Reich'. Now Bavaria should not allow itself to be dictated to by a Brussels bureaucracy. 'In a federal Europe Germany would become what Bavaria has been until now in Germany. Bavaria would then be robbed of its statehood.'

Mr Stoiber's comments were immediately attacked by a senior member of the Christian Democrats in Bonn as high treason and others were equally angry. Mr Stoiber was unrepentant. 'I have dared to do what one is clearly not supposed to do in Germany. Instead of propagating visions and dreams I acknowledged the realities and responded to people's worries.'

Heribert Prantl, the Suddeutsche journalist whose interview caused all the fuss, said that Mr Stoiber is 'playing two tunes at the same time'. On the one hand he is playing to Bavarian worries about the region's changed role in the new Germany: in the wake of unity, Bavarians say that 'Germany is bigger but Bavaria is smaller'. On the other hand Mr Stoiber plays on pan-German worries. At a time when economic times are tough, 'Europe' is easy to blame for what has gone wrong. Josef Joffe, foreign editor of the Suddeutsche, which is based in the Bavarian capital, Munich, argues that the anti-European sentiments are in response to the need for a scapegoat. In reality, suggests Mr Joffe, 'The true enemy is the market. It exposes the uncompetitive and undercuts the cosy arrangement we had in this country for years.'

In the Bavarian state chancellery in Munich officials are confident that Mr Stoiber - 'Edmund Thatcher' in the headline-writers' phrase - has tapped into a strong vein of popular dissatisfaction. The appeal to Bavarian patriotism is clear but the huge piles of letters to Mr Stoiber from all across Germany (more than 30 in a single afternoon's post) make it clear that he is speaking to more than Bavarians.

Mr Stoiber's warnings on Europe are seen by some as electoral politicking on a grand scale. The Christian Social Union, or CSU (a Bavarian sister party to Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats) has held the monopoly of power in Bavaria for the past 40 years. Landshut, where the CSU has more than twice as many seats as any other party, is not untypical, in that respect. Now, however, the CSU is worried that its power may be diluted by the threat from the extreme- right (and strongly anti-European) Republicans.

Whatever the reasons for his Euro-move there can be little doubt of the storm that Mr Stoiber has unleashed. The Committee of the Regions, officially created when Maastricht took effect last month to strengthen regional power, was originally a Bavarian initiative. With 11 million citizens Bavaria is bigger and richer than many members of the European Union and Bavaria, like Scotland, has tended to see regional power as a cornerstone of the new Europe.

Now, however, the Committee of the Regions (which centralist Britain was eager to dilute) is seen as providing insufficient guarantees against Eurocratic meddling. In Mr Stoiber's words, 'Brussels shouldn't decide about the workspace for a butcher in (the little town of) Holzkirchen.'

Mr Stoiber's warnings and the resentments that he has articulated may merely be a hiccup on the road towards greater European unity. Alternatively some believe that this may mark a turning point as the process slows down or even goes into reverse. According to that scenario the Maastricht treaty, intended as a prelude to further change, would represent a high-water mark before the turn of the tide.

(Photograph omitted)