Farewell Oskar, hello a fresh start for Europe

IN TWO WEEKS Germany will stage the EU's make-or-break summit, the one that is supposed to take a scythe to agricultural subsidies and sort out which country gets a rebate from whom. Germany will not have a finance minister at these crucial negotiations, because the last incumbent walked out in a huff on Thursday night.

Such a state of affairs might, in normal circumstances, be regarded as little short of a calamity. But since Oskar Lafontaine - aka "The Most Dangerous Man in Europe" - fled into the hills of the Saarland, the entire continent has been in the grip of an epidemic of optimism. After the demise of "Red Oskar", everything seems possible. The euro has perked up, share prices are racing, and hopes are rising that a deal might yet be possible at the Berlin summit.

Mr Lafontaine will be lamented by the Murdoch press, but the passing of their bogeyman is a great stroke of luck for the British government. There will be no more careless talk of tax harmonisation in Bonn. The cordial relations between Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder will no longer be disrupted by the loose cannon from Saarbrucken.

Mr Lafontaine's eventual successor, Hans Eichel, is guaranteed to be on-message. Mr Eichel, the 57-year old prime minister of Hesse, is a friend of bankers and businessmen a Social Democrat of the Nineties.

But Mr Eichel will not attend the Berlin summit, because he is still serving out his last days in his regional job. In the coming interregnum, the workings of this most chaotic of governments are bound to become even more haphazard.

Thanks to Mr Lafontaine's retirement from politics - he is even giving up his seat in the Bundestag - the Chancellor has been gifted control over the party machinery. He will be up against a party consumed by resentment at the downfall of their favourite son. The silence from Saarbrucken, meanwhile, is deafening. Mr Lafontaine will not take calls from the Chancellor, but nor will he make any statements on the events of these astounding days. Everybody has heard the accounts from Mr Schroder's side, how he humiliated the finance minister in front of other - including, horror of horrors, Green - cabinet members on Wednesday. The Chancellor was not prepared to go along with Mr Lafontaine's attacks on German industry, it was revealed by sources close to Mr Schroder. The finance minister's chips were down, and Mr Schroder made sure the whole country knew that.

Still, the resignation on Thursday came as a shock. Mr Lafontaine evidently did not feel the need to discuss it with his boss. He had complained to friends about finding "no joy" in his work. He had grown tired of the personal attacks on him, marshalled from the Chancellery. Damaging "leaks" about Mr Lafontaine coveting Jacques Santer's job as head of the European Commission did not come from nowhere.

That is one explanation of Mr Lafontaine's abrupt departure, but to conspiracy theorists it is not enough. A rumour is sweeping the German media world, implying that the former prime minister of Saarland had been forced out by a scandal. The "red-light district" affair had caused him acute embarrassment several years ago. His name had cropped up at a murder trial in Saarbrucken which ended in 1997.

The defendant, accused of killing the boss of a brothel, had claimed to be in possession of "compromising pictures" of Mr Lafontaine. Have these alleged pictures suddenly surfaced again? We may never know. For the first time in his life, Mr Lafontaine is keeping mum.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss