Political exile finds new angle in Saxony

LOCAL HEROES ": Kurt Beidenkopf
It is not often that Germany takes a stand against the power of the European Commission, and even more rarely does such resistance spring from within Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat party. Yet that is exactly what a failed CDU leader has done - throwing down the gauntlet to Brussels from his place of exile in eastern Germany.

Kurt Biedenkopf, Prime Minister of Saxony, has declared war on Brussels and Bonn, shattering the illusion of consensus about the country's place in Europe. "Centralism is dangerous for Europe," Mr Biedenkopf proclaimed after announcing that he was taking the Commission to court.

Mr Biedenkopf had taken it upon himself to grant a subsidy of Dm142m (pounds 60m) to Volkswagen to invest in its two existing plants on his patch, defying an EC ruling that the subsidies would give the company an unfair advantage over competitors. "If you are in Brussels, you can't tell if some region needs 5 million marks to help stop unemployment," he said. "You can only know such things if you are close to the problem."

You cannot get much closer to the problem of mass unemployment than running one of the so-called "new Lander", a job Mr Biedenkopf found himself in almost by accident six years ago. A former general secretary of the CDU and long-time rival of Mr Kohl, he was driven out of Bonn at the age of 60 and took up a law professorship at Leipzig University shortly after reunification.

In elections in 1990 to the regional assembly, the local party was looking for a credible leader, and Mr Biedenkopf, a Wessi (former West German) with an American degree in political science but no Saxon links other than his fresh appointment at Leipzig, was the best the Christian Democrats had. He won easily, obliterating the Social Democrat opposition; a feat he has been able to repeat in successive elections.

Western companies have been cajoled to regenerate the industry that had fallen into neglect, and Dresden's bombed- out Frauenkirche - emblem of its former splendour - is being rebuilt at huge expense. After six years of the Biedenkopf reign, the sea of economic failure that once covered the land has been transformed into an archipelago of gleaming factories.

Much of this is down to King Kurt's tireless lobbying, and to the sweeteners that have so enraged the EC. Without the contribution from the Land, subsidised in turn by the west German taxpayer, Volkswagen had been poised to take its business to Hungary or Slovenia - endangering some 23,000 precious jobs.

The Saxons are understandably ecstatic, and so are, surprisingly, Germans in other regions - with messages of "solidarity" flooding in.

Bonn presumably disapproves, but has yet to muster the courage to side openly with Brussels against a German region flouting European law.

As Saxony's adopted son awaits his day in court, Chancellor Kohl must be pondering the wisdom of allowing his adversary to slip out of sight. After six years in the wilderness, "King Kurt" is back, carrying the torch for the growing band of German Euro-sceptics.

Imre Karacs