The New Statesman Profile - Joschka Fischer

Former taxi driver and anarchist, the German foreign minister now has his own bold vision of a new E

Every weekend, Joschka Fischer is out pounding the roads for a good 20 miles, wherever he happens to be. Round the Pyramids of the Nile. Through Berlin's Tiergarten. Over the heroic new bridge joining Denmark to Sweden. The German foreign minister needs to be fit for a new twentysomething wife, his fourth. Also, his best ideas come to him after a hard run. He must have been out on a real grinder before launching his visionary scheme to give Europe a final shape.

This is the problem with the European Union. No one knows how it will end up. Most European leaders are about as ready as Tony Blair to state their view on the endgame. So it is good to have someone in no mean position of power - Joschka (no one calls him Fischer) is Germany's deputy chancellor - to do it.

The vision with which Joschka has delighted, and rattled, the chancelleries of Europe in recent weeks was presented as a personal one. But he carries the weight of a new Germany, coupled with home popularity rankings as high as those of his boss, Gerhard Schroder, a chancellor who has now established himself.

Joschka is an original. A provoker. His impish wit was the spice of the German Bundestag before he entered government almost two years ago, when Schroder the Social Democrat was elected chancellor and formed a coalition with the Greens. One problem for Joschka's Bundestag victims was how to joust with an assailant dressed in T-shirt and sneakers, his parliamentary gear. The first Green to hold high national office, he now fights to curb his tongue on the front bench, tramlines of withheld wickedness cutting his brow. He is aching to fire a Joschka special, but is constrained by the decorum of office and an incongruous three-piece suit.

One has to smile after he has been in negotiations with some world dignitary and his foreign ministry subalterns report on "cordial discussions", "a constructive spirit", "an important step forward", "full support" and so on, as if this were language one could remotely associate with their boss. This is the man who saw off Helmut Kohl in parliamentary debate, prior to his disgrace, by dubbing him "20 stone of the past made flesh". Even Kohl cracked up. It's not so long ago that Joschka himself counted among Germany's better-known tubsters - before he moved to running, vegetables and mineral water to fit into today's barely recognisable thin man.

Joschka can wound. Half the Bundestag still has darts to pull out. Yet, apart from the British government and, in a strange way, the French, few in the EU seem wounded by his picture of Europe's "finality", as he calls it.

Yes, a federation it is. A federation in which nation states persist because, he recognises, "people obviously identify with them". A federation with a bicameral legislature - one house being the present European Parliament, the other comprising members of national parliaments. A European government would hold major executive powers, and there would be a directly elected European president. A constitution (putting together the treaties of Rome, Maastricht and so on) would set out what the federal government does and what national governments do. Federal government, Joschka proposes, should handle "internal security, external security, money and anything that can be resolved only on the European level". The rest would be the responsibility of national states.

There it is. This German foreign minister isn't hiding like so many other pro-European leaders behind the coded flimflam that passes for a position. In the European forum, which induces deep fears of being forthright, and not only in Downing Street, what Joschka has done takes courage. Look what has happened to the cautious Javier Solana, the Spaniard recently appointed to man the vital phone line on which Henry Kissinger longed to dial "Europe". He appears to have gone underground. Like Romano Prodi, who everyone had thought would make a bounding head of the European Commission.

Why has Joschka taken the risk? The timing is interesting. For much of this year, he seemed to have gone off the boil. Questions were being asked in Germany about his political commitment. Could he be burned out at 52? He was exhausted, it was said, from the Kosovo crisis, which sent German troops into a war zone for the first time since 1945. It was a trying coincidence that this should have occurred when a Green with an aggressively pacifist past was in charge of foreign policy.

Joschka has also to exercise power "contaminated" by partnership with Schroder's Social Democrats, who are not weighed down by idealism. This has somehow cut him off from his party base, which is debating whether to drop him from its leadership. It thinks he is too tied up with his ego. His love of power aggrieves Green militants, who are instinctively anti-authority. Perhaps Germany's trailblazing decision to abandon nuclear energy will ease his problems with the party he co-founded back in the 1970s.

But Joschka has not set out the German version of Europe's endgame to resurrect himself. He first discussed it privately with Hubert Vedrine, his French counterpart, for more than a year. The true background to his timing is that Europe needs pulling out of one of those bouts of paralysis that afflict it after a major advance, in this case, the creation of the euro. Enlargement to the east is proving harder to agree on than expected. Tax harmonisation to underpin the euro stands blocked (principally by Gordon Brown).

Joschka took up the challenge. By nature, he is a street fighter, far removed from the von und zu school of German diplomatic tradition, and it was genuine street fighting that took this refugee butcher's son into politics with the minimum of formal schooling. After the upheavals of 1968, he shared rooms in Frankfurt with the firebrand who led the famous May uprising in Paris, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. In Frankfurt, the German financial capital, the pair pursued their revolution as members of an anarchist group on the battlefield of housing, workers' rights and pollution - anything they could get incensed about.

To keep himself going, Joschka drove a taxi for five years. The intensive reading of history he squeezed in between fares has made him, without contest, the best-read member of the current German government and its most published political author. His fares were a captive audience for the droll provocations that took him to the leadership of the fledgling Greens, then to a seat in the Bundestag. If we are looking for fresh figures to enliven our elitism debate, Joschka looks like the best entry since Ernie Bevin, also a foreign minister.

One reason for biding his time before firing on Europe is that Chancellor Schroder, by comparison with Euro-builder Kohl, at first seemed uninterested. Joschka is respectful of Schroder and his rank, and, for someone so unhumble, he plays the humble servant with skill. The chancellor's interest in Blair's Third Way diverted his gaze from Europe and the core relationship with France. Now it has switched back.

In Berlin, Schroder alone saw Joschka's vision of where Europe is headed before he launched it, and gave it the nod. The Frenchman Vedrine was also privy to it, although he preferred not to attach his name. The crafty Frenchman must have kept quiet about it because, as soon as it was revealed - to predictable head- shaking in Downing Street - it caused an explosion in France, with the interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a nationalist, saying publicly that Germany still dreams of the Holy Roman empire and "is not yet over its Nazi derailment".

Joschka's response to the French minister's absurd claim is unusually patient. In the full glare of the media, he has been arguing convincingly that no state in Europe is farther from ideas of empire than today's Germany. "We have a revolution on our hands, a constitutional revolution," he says. "The alternative is simple - federal Europe or centralised Europe or, worse, no Europe at all."

Despite Chevenement, who has escaped poor Nicholas Ridley's lot and is still at his desk, the broad reaction of the French government is one of favour laden with practical concern about how nation states will retain their functions in an "intergovernmental federation". President Jacques Chirac was in Berlin a day or so ago, patting Joschka on the back and strongly supporting a direct consequence of his endgame. What it prefigures is a hard-core Europe of half a dozen or so committed countries, Britain among them if it wishes. More could join when ready.

The core already exists in terms of money, freedom of movement, civil rights and, increasingly, defence and foreign policy; and extending it would resolve the problem of a European Union in which any workable federation is otherwise blocked or gradually eroded by ever-increasing membership. The core concept first surfaced in the mid-1990s, also in Germany, but was kicked into touch by doubts over exclusiveness. If Europe is to have a clear destination, though, it has its merits. Joschka's achievement is to have broken through the strange silence surrounding Europe's destination.

There is always the chance that this is Joschka testing out a new role for himself. He has the habit of re-inventing himself at intervals. Marriage is just one level he works on. He is a demon of metamorphosis. From T-shirt to three-piece suit. Anarchist to parliamentarian. Despiser of power to lover of power. You can bet there will be more to come. "When you reach a point where you have ex-hausted all possibilities in your present life," he will say, "then you look for something else."

So will Big Green leave his party? Times change. The Greens may be on the way out. In the new Germany, their ideas carry diminishing popular appeal. At the next general election in two years' time, the party is not certain to win the 5 per cent vote that ensures seats in the Bundestag. If it doesn't, the present coalition is dead and Joschka is out. He must see that coming. He could conceivably switch to the Social Democrats and keep his job. But this is unlikely. Germans don't switch parties. And it would appear sneakily out of character.

He needs now to build on his bold image as Europe's end architect. He needs to get France firmly aboard, which means recon- ciling how you create a federation while maintaining nation states. If Joschka can pound out a few extra miles this weekend, maybe he can crack it.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?