Miners' victory parade mocks Kohl's feeble posturing

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The Independent Online
Thousands of miners rode into Bonn yesterday for an impromptu victory procession, honking their horns and holding two fingers aloft in salute of the government offices along the route. Policemen and onlookers lining the road greeted the bikers with Mexican waves.

After almost a week of protests, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and union leaders reached a compromise yesterday on the future of the coal industry.There will be no mass redundancies, but by 2005 the number of people employed in the pits will be cut by half. Over the next eight years, about 48,000 miners will be made offers they could not possibly refuse, including lavishly- funded early retirement, retraining and unspecified make-work schemes.

To soften the immediate impact of the programme, the government agreed to close only one pit between now and the year 2000, and another three or four by 2005. Currently, there are 18 working collieries in Saarland and the Ruhr. "The fight was worth it," declared Hans Berger, the leader of the miners' trade union, who had shouted himself hoarse over the last week.

The government also appeared reasonably satisfied with the deal. "We have ensured the survival of the mining industry in a way that is economically acceptable," said Friedrich Bohl, Mr Kohl's right-hand man in the chancellery. "We have ensured that changes in the mining industry can be carried out in a way that avoids mass layoffs."

Last year, the government paid DM10bn (pounds 3.7bn) in subsidies to German coal, which costs two-and-a-half times the world market price. Total coal subsidies, including contributions from the region of North Rhine-Westphalia, will be cut to DM5.5bn over the next eight years.

This figure, however, does not include the sums the government has discovered since thousands of miners pitched tents in Bonn earlier in the week. Now the state coffers are miraculously flush with money. About DM300m a year extra will pour into the pits to persuade miners that a career change would be in their interest. As a result, the taxpayers' contribution to coal-mining will actually rise next year.

The agreement was hammered out overnight by union negotiators and chancellery officials, who stayed up till 5am haggling over the details. After Tuesday's debacle, when Mr Kohl cancelled his meeting with the union at short notice, the opposition Social Democrats stepped in to mediate.

The basic compromise - postponing pit closures beyond 2000 - was arrived at during a meeting on Wednesday between the deputy leaders of the two biggest parties: Wolfgang Schauble of the Christian Democrats and Rudolf Scharping of the SPD.

The SPD's key role in defusing the tension offers an unflattering contrast to Mr Kohl's feeble posturings of the past few days. Once again, the Chancellor has demonstrated he no longer has the authority to govern alone. After yesterday's agreement, the Social Democrats announced they would resume talks with Mr Kohl, ostensibly about tax reforms, but in reality about some form of grand coalition.