Kohl's enemies ready to play anti-EMU card

Germany's governing Christian Democrats seem to be the envy of the conservative world. Helmut Kohl, in his 13th year as Chancellor, is riding high in the polls, the economy is sound, and the opposition obligingly tearing itself apart.

As CDU delegates filed out of the hall at the end of their three-day party conference yesterday, they had reason to murmur among themselves that they've never had it so good. But, as some of their leaders have warned this week, their success could yet be their undoing.

In the German political landscape, the spectacular feats of the CDU are matched only by their opponents' disarray. The Social Democrats are so devoid of ideas under their charismatically challenged leader, Rudolf Scharping, that they may be forced to exploit the only issue where Mr Kohl is vulnerable: Europe. At present, the Bonn elite is seemingly united in its commitment to the process of European integration, and Germany, together with France, has traditionally been the locomotive of monetary union. But as the spectre of the yet unnamed Euro-currency looms larger, fear of losing the beloved mark is beginning to grip Germans.

So far these anxieties have merely generated petitions and measured complaints from eminent citizens. But when Germans go to the polls in three years' time, they will be doing so on the eve of monetary union. Opinion polls are already showing that, while an overwhelming majority of Germans is enthusiastic about European integration, only a minority supports a common currency.

This is where the Social Democrats come in. By 1998 they will undoubtedly be under a new leader, but still hamstrung by the seemingly irreversible erosion of their support. Organised labour is in retreat, and the Blairite route of escape to the right is blocked by a successful conservative government. On the left, the SPD is being squeezed by the Greens. In the centre, the Christian Democrats are infiltrating SPD territory. The temptation to jump on the anti-Europe bandwagon will thus be hard to resist.

The Christian Democrats have warned that under new management the SPD might abandon its commitment to monetary union, and take on the mantle of Europe's saviour from a feeble currency. The government's bogeyman is the cerebral Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD's candidate for the chancellorship in their 1990 election disaster. "Lafontaine... will whip up fears against the European currency, just as he whipped up fears in 1990 against German unification," warned Wolfgang Schauble, Mr Kohl's parliamentary deputy.

Mr Lafontaine may soon get a second bite at the cherry. The Social Democrats are trailing 13 points behind Mr Kohl's party, and are facing a string of disastrous regional elections, starting in Berlin on Sunday. The battle to oust Mr Scharping has commenced, with Mr Lafontaine firing the most powerful salvoes. Whoever comes out on top, the outcome spells trouble for Europe.

Even within Mr Kohl's party, a growing number of politicians are raising doubts about the wisdom of allowing foreign governments a role in Germany's obsessive battle against inflation. Yielding to this pressure, the CDU has been forced to harden its stance, resolving to insist on strict monetary discipline in the participating countries even after 1999. If the debate turns bitter, and the SPD manages to exploit the divisions, the German locomotive could yet be slowed.

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