Leading Article: Germany sunk in gloom

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The Independent Online
TEMPTING though it may be to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude at the sight of an often smug neighbour in trouble, self-interest should make us worry about the German malaise, now highlighted by setbacks for both main parties in the Hesse elections on Sunday. A sick Germany is even worse news for Europe than a sick Britain because Germany is bigger and its gloom more infectious. Its interest rates burden other members; its recession reduces imports; worse still, its political paralysis prevents it from making its proper contribution to the development of the European Community and Central Europe.

But there is not yet much need for alarm at the advance of the right-wing Republican party, which won 8.3 per cent of the votes in Hesse. Considering the mood of the country and the deep disillusion it appears to feel with the entire political establishment, the result is not all that impressive. Abstentions rose about as much as the Republican vote.

Extreme right-wing parties have come and gone in Germany since the war. In the late Sixties, the National Democratic Party won 61 seats in seven regional governments and then faded away. The Republican party, founded in 1983, was on the rise before unification, winning 6 per cent in West Berlin in January 1989 and 7.1 per cent the following June in elections for the European Parliament. Then it almost vanished when unification arrived. It has returned on the back of widespread anger at the costs of unification and the excessive liberalism of asylum laws. But its support is shallow and not rooted in ideology. It comes from both main parties and from traditional abstainers. Most of it represents protest by those who are insecure, overburdened, unemployed or simply angry with conventional politicians. The mainstream parties could win their defectors back very quickly if they pulled their act together.

Unfortunately, they show no signs of doing so. They wrangle interminably over problems to which everyone knows the solution, and wring their hands in despair over those that are somewhat more difficult. They know that subsidies must be cut, the welfare system reformed and asylum laws changed. They know they ought to consider whether the whole ethnic basis of German citizenship should be changed by making it easier for immigrants to become citizens.

They know that feather-bedded German industry is becoming uncompetitive and public utilities a burden. They know that Germany should already be pulling its weight in international peace-keeping operations. But Bonn feels more like a cosy Swiss town than the political and economic powerhouse of Europe or a frontier post on the march towards change. This may reflect the regressive yearnings of Germans for the Swiss model, which have been reported by opinion polls, but it holds back adjustment to the difficult new environment in which Germany now finds itself.

Germany has for so long been the physician of Europe, prescribing remedies for others, that it has forgotten how to heal itself. Probably it will do so in due course, for it has deep reserves of political skill and common sense, but the longer it languishes in gloom the more its citizens will turn away from mainstream politics and the greater the delay before its equally sick neighbours can join a common search for cures.