Leading Article: End of an ideal

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THE Basic Law, or Constitution, of what is now unified Germany states baldly in Article 16 that: 'Persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right of asylum.' The intention was clear and admirable: the federal republic would atone for some of the horrors of the Nazi era by becoming a haven for those suffering from totalitarian regimes around the world. The country was still largely in ruins and teeming with refugees from the Soviet-occupied zone. It cannot have seemed a very likely or appealing destination for the persecuted from poor countries. Nor can those who drafted that simple sentence in 1949 have imagined that it would help to revive the very forces for which it was designed to atone.

It was not just the absoluteness of the right to asylum that brought in hundreds of thousands of refugees from as far afield as Africa and Afghanistan, but the tolerance with which they were long treated by the authorities. Once in - and few were turned back, British-style, at the borders - they received generous social benefits and could count on a year or more before their cases were heard.

Since the death of Communism in Eastern Europe, however, the number of asylum- seekers has risen dramatically: in the first nine months of this year there have been 320,000, against 250,000 in 1991. The backlog of applications is put at 500,000. Only recently has there been a serious effort to speed up their processing. For east Germans suffering from the collapse of the local economy, and for west Germans bitter about the cost of unification, foreigners have become a focal point for resentment, with horrifying results. Now, at last, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition government has agreed that the Constitution should be changed. The absolute right of Article 16 is to be superseded by the relevant passage from the Geneva Convention on Refugees of 1951. This confers refugee status on those outside the country of their nationality with a 'well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion'. That might seem rather to widen the definition. But as Britain has shown, everything lies in the interpretation and implementation.

The constitutional amendment will require a two-thirds majority in both the Bundestag and Bundesrat, and will thus depend on

approval by the opposition SPD. The latter's

activists oppose the move as a shameful

concession to neo-Nazi brutality. But its

leader, Bjorn Engholm, recently decided to back the amendments. He is supported by those involved in provincial SPD governments, who deal with the real world. If he is voted down at next month's special party congress, the party will be disastrously split and is likely to be derided as grossly out of touch.

The refugee issue, coupled with the travail of unification, is producing a wholesale shift to the right across Germany as the main parties seek to placate public opinion and halt the rise of the far-right Republican Party. As in France and Italy, the prevailing mood is one of disenchantment with the political class. In any democracy that is dangerous. It is particularly undesirable in a country whose political weight is beginning to match its economic power.