Leading Article: The final act, but Kohl remains mighty

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This latest German opera is called Kanzlerdammerung, the Twilight of the Chancellor. You may have been led by recent colourful front-of- stalls reports into thinking that the Rhine is boiling, Bonn's Gods are at each others' throats and Valhalla (Chancellor Kohl's Euro-project) is about to tumble. The problem with the scenario is that Helmut Kohl is not Wotan. He may be down but neither he nor his European ambitions is yet to be counted out. These past few weeks he has hit the roughest patch in his long dominance of German politics, but the Kohl era is not over yet.

But wait. What a cheap shot that Wagnerian trope is. It's so typical of the British approach to Germany to glorify in national stereotypes. History will always be an instructive companion, but should never become a tour guide. What is happening in Bonn is mere politics, healthy contestation of a kind we know well. A party convulses at the prospect of a change in leadership (ring any bells?) and the opposition rub their hands. Helmut Kohl is beleaguered - though unlike the British Prime Minister he still has his finance minister entirely on board in the matter of Europe.

Just listen to that not-so-coded message from Wolfgang Schauble, his deputy: as well as himself, he said, there are at least eight other possible replacement chancellors from within the ruling coalition. Note that he could make that remark only because German federalism is flourishing. All of the parties can call on talent nurtured in the state ministries of Dusseldorf, Munich and Saarbrucken. Could you ask for a more convincing demonstration that, as the century turns, German democracy is in fine fettle? Even the question could sound patronising, unless we admit that the Germans could easily turn round and criticise the cramping centralisation of power in the United Kingdom and instruct us in how liberating devolution of power can be. That said, German domestic politics are of especial interest to us in two areas.

The first is the reviving fortunes of the centre-left, as shown in the polls, and in the perkiness of the Social Democrats. What might this say about the Great Question of modern European politics, which is, what is left for the left when everyone agrees on low inflation, controlled taxes and constant downwards pressure on public spending?

Well almost everyone. Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD Bundestag leader, bidden to talks with the government on Monday night because his party controls the upper parliamentary chamber, ruled out any cuts in the top rate of tax, which is more than 50 per cent. Taxes, in Germany, do not quite have the reach-for-the-garlic-and-crucifix ring they have here. The SPD has been conversing lately with the Green Alliance about the possibility of coalitions and the air is thick with talk of energy taxes. Watch this space for fiscal innovation.

The other question which directly concerns us is, of course, European integration. On the fate of Helmut Kohl depends the launch of the Euro in 1999. Look at the alternatives to him. All of them - whether Social Democrat, from the Christian Social Union (whose big man, the Bavarian prime minister Manfred Stoible, is a contender), or frontbenchers of the Christian Democrats - are less enthusiastic about the single currency and unwedded to the existing timetable. Say the Chancellor were to return from his Easter break and announce that he would not be a candidate for the next national elections, due in 1998. The German negotiating position at the Amsterdam inter-governmental conference would inevitably be weakened. The capacity of the CDU/CSU coalition to make that last push to bring the German budget deficit down to within Maastricht limits might be fatally weakened.

The clear implication is that all those in this country who, for their various reasons, wish to see monetary union delayed, must hope that the Big Man is on his last legs. Without Kohl, the next British government faces a much easier ride, whatever its colour. So what happens in Germany if there is a revolt within the coalition, or the opposition demand the Chancellor's head as the price of its adherence to radical tax and pensions reform? Does it follow that the prospects for further integration of the European Union would be so badly set back? There is a school of thought, which certain Euro-enthusiasts have encouraged, which projects the possibility of no single currency, and Germany floating off into Austrian-style nationalism, or withdrawing into itself, leaving a geo-political vacuum in central Europe.

But neither of those is either necessary, or a likely outcome. The question of what post-Kohl Germany looks like has become a lot easier to answer as the contenders limber up and strut the Bonn stage. The very fact that the SPD has been willing to begin discussions with the government over tax reform is a harbinger. The SPD is, truth to tell, a conservative party resembling in some degrees Old Labour, though without its ideological baggage and a lot more sharply dressed. But even it is beginning to bite the bullet of reducing labour costs and stimulating enterprise. Real Europhiles need have no fear of a SPD revival - Herr Lafontaine and his colleagues were not called Tuscany-socialists for nothing.

But the game is not yet up. Chancellor Kohl will have to struggle to recover his former authority. He has the example before him in Konrad Adenauer of a Chancellor who stayed too long, though it will be more than a decade before he gets anywhere near Adenauer's age at exit. The revelation of the past few days is the quality and number of his would-be replacements. But they are still in the wings. Helmut Kohl bestrides the stage.