Leading Article: German leaders must turn xenophobic tide

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THESE ARE trying times in Germany. Signs of recovery similar to these in labour markets elsewhere are barely visible. Youth joblessness is a scandal, allowing the extreme right to make inroads in the east. The Kohl government stumbles while the challenging Social Democrats seemingly cannot decide whether to move to the right (say, on immigration) or left (on nationalisation) of the governing coalition. It's an era when scapegoats are at a premium, and Germany's foreigners - legal immigrants along with asylum seekers and illegals - are in the firing line.

It says something both reassuring and worrying that Germany's leading tabloid the Bild Zeitung should yesterday devote a prominent article to rebutting the beliefs that immigrants commit more crime, live off state handouts and take German jobs from natives. None of those prejudices of course holds water.

Germany's problem stems from the sudden replacement of half-hearted liberalism with a harsh policy of exclusion towards asylum-seekers at a time when - especially in the new east German Lander - social and economic tensions are rife. Looked at as a whole, Germany's post-war history on accepting foreigners is confused. Did any German leader ever acknowledge that large- scale immigration from Turkey would eventually make for a multicultural society? Successive German governments have been reluctant to see that the country's economic prosperity made it a magnet not just for immigrants from the East (white and relatively easily assimilable) but also for arrivals from the Mediterranean littoral and, more recently, black Africa and the Far East. Too often, German ministers and officials prevaricated, frightened of confronting the shadow of the nation's history.

But now that official policy is to return all but the most obviously oppressed asylum seekers, ministers are in danger of looking merely cruel - especially at a time when xenophobia seems to be rampant. The latest manifestation is the threat by the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, (a Free Democrat) to chop the German aid budget in order to punish those countries, mainly African and Asian, which are not co-operating in Germany's active repatriation policy.

This is extraordinarily short-sighted since - ultimately - only economic and political development will make those exporters of asylum-seekers fit places to live. Germany is now a great nation again, in terms of population and economic potency. It is time German politicians started acting out a role of greatness on the international stage and stopped behaving like provincials playing to domestic reactionaries.