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17 December 2001

Another leader who’s had a good war

The German economy may be in trouble but, since 11 September, Gerhard Schroder has won Blair-like le

By David Lawday

It would seem reasonable to assume that Tony Blair’s anti-terrorist push for world standing enhances his position in Europe, which is home turf of sorts. And so it does. To be sure, widespread admiration in Europe for his personal drive comes with a ripple of irritation, mainly from France, at his stage-grabbing. But competition at the top is not, at first glance, especially hot at the moment. France’s dual leadership has turned into a Punch-and-Judy show. At the Brussels power centre, Romano Prodi appears insipid as European Commission president. Silvio Berlusconi is the wrong stuff to walk tall outside an astonishingly tolerant Italy.

So the bareness of the European stage invites Britain’s questing PM to fill it. But look again. There is someone with an agenda the size of Blair’s. The most important international negotiations of the day, aimed at forming a government for post-Taliban Afghanistan, have been held in Germany. To all appearances, Germany has brought war to an end. This follows a solo German effort (in vain, it turns out) to cool things off in that other cauldron, the Middle East.

If Germany is bursting forth as a world player, the reason is Gerhard Schroder, its popular chancellor. Under Schroder, the Germany of caricature looks to be going into reverse. It used to be an “economic giant”; it won’t admittedly turn dwarf overnight, even though the current slump has left it weaker than Britain and others, pushing it into solitary recession. But the “political dwarf” of old is all abulge.

The events of 11 September were a political epiphany for Schroder, as they were for Blair. Rather too much has been said about the terrorist attack marking a turning point in history, but for this pair it rings true. The chancellor at once began using language of a kind previously unheard in Germany. His pledge of “unlimited solidarity” with the US in fighting world terrorism made everyone sit up. It broke resoundingly with postwar Germany’s record of offering partial support – medical help, say, or technical assistance, or more likely still a pile of Deutschmarks – for military actions undertaken by the western alliance. In the Gulf war ten years ago, Germany was too paralysed to move.

“This stage in postwar German policy is now irrevocably finished,” the chancellor insists. No longer, he tells the Bundestag in Berlin, will Germany refuse the kind of risks its major western partners are ready to take in “defending democratic values”. At last Schroder has found the theme to back the mission he has set himself: to make Germany a normal western partner. “I’ve got it, by God I’ve got it,” he seems to be telling himself.

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He is not a conviction politician like Blair, more a skilled media figure with a supple, Clintonesque liking for power and for getting people on his side. It’s hard to dislike a chancellor who can be seen on a Berlin railway station platform of a Sunday evening waving a fond goodbye to his (fourth) wife as she returns to their Hanover home after a conjugal weekend, while he heads back to the new Berlin Chancellery, a kitsch monster which he wryly admits leaves him cold. What he likes about Berlin is the chance it has given him, as the first postwar chancellor to move there from Bonn, to show that the country no longer needs to operate in a quiet comfortable backwater and can instead feel easy with power.

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Winning popular sympathy comes easily to Schroder. Germans have come to identify with his personal ups and downs. He has taken risks to achieve his ambition of making Germany normal, succeeding against the odds in liberalising its unattractive nationality laws, reforming immigration, taking stock of its multiculturalism instead of denying it, and generally making it seem natural for his country to have the world role it has self-consciously shunned since 1945.

Then came the proposal to send 3,900 combat troops to Afghanistan. Although the troops haven’t gone yet (and maybe never will), securing Bundestag agreement to send them meant overcoming a constitutional ban on deploying German combat forces outside the Nato area. Not until the recent Balkan wars had the Bundestag relented on allowing German troops to operate – even as peacekeepers – beyond Germany’s own borders.

The danger for Schroder seethed in his governing coalition, a fragile partnership between his own Social Democrats and the Greens, who remain instinctively pacifist. He made the military undertaking a question of confidence in his government, only the fourth time a confidence motion has been put before the Bundestag in federal German history. In the end, he squeezed through in mid-November by a bare two votes, gambling correctly that some Greens would prefer staying in government to going down with their ideals intact.

The successful gamble has strengthened the chancellor’s political hand. He has put the Greens in their place once and for all. Since he can confidently turn to the liberal Free Democrats as an alternative coalition partner, the Greens have lost all leverage. His Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, his enthusiastic accomplice in putting German diplomacy on the move, stands relieved of pressures placed on him by a party to which he still formally belongs but which he regards as a handicap for an internationally engaged Germany. In personal popularity terms, the chancellor himself looks untouchable. He is ably assisted by the enemy, the brooding Christian Democrats, who are as lost in opposition as the Thatcherless Tories.

So could Schroder and Blair be heading for rivalry in Europe? Both have mothballed the “Third Way” politics that once united their political views. Yet only the other day Schroder gave Britain’s PM the chance to shine at a major German political event, the Social Democrats’ party conference. The Prime Minister’s host applauded him for the world agenda he set out. This wasn’t the gesture of someone concerned about rivalry.

Schroder keeps a closer eye on France. Given the emphasis that the German and French governments still put on their partnership at Europe’s helm, this may sound odd. But a large part of the chancellor’s effort to reshape German thinking has been directed towards putting things on a different keel with France, so that the French can no longer expect as of right to be the political boss in the partnership.

Indeed, he has largely met his objective, and not just because France is in the political mess of having two leaders who keep whacking each other off the stage in the run-up to next spring’s presidential election. Schroder’s breakthrough came at a testy EU summit in Nice this time last year when he secured, over French objections, a shade more say for Germany than for other EU members in European councils. This can be justified because a reunited Germany has easily the largest population.

Schroder is in no mood to be ignored. Even a sinking German economy may not turn voters against him. If the war on terrorism makes Tony Blair bigger in Europe and indeed helps him bring home the euro, he won’t be lacking company at the top.