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German-French relations strain
One week before the crucial Nice Summit begins on 7 December, German-French co-operation, habitually regarded as the "motor of European integration," seems increasingly hampered by disagreement on how to solve one of the so-called "Amsterdam left-overs."
The two "axis partners" agreed in the present Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) that the larger member states should be given more weight in the Council of Ministers, which is the main legislative body of the European Union. However, Germany recently started pressing for a reassessment: an upgrading of its position.
What is just?
Germany's point is that it, as the largest EU member-state of 82 million, should be in a separate league from the other heavyweights. (Britain has only 58 million, and France and Italy only 56 million each.) In a way, Germany is able to use the strong resentment of the smaller member-states against the "threat" of a directoire of the big three or four.
This resentment has been fuelled by the present French presidency, perceived by some as "arrogant." At the Biarritz Summit in September, France made statements that appeared to belittle the standing of the small countries. However, these same countries also dislike the notion of a Germany with more weight, even though this country has a slightly better "European" reputation than France.
French President Jacques Chirac warned this week against any move that would threaten the principle of equality between Germany and France. For his turn, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced that any solution found at Nice would be "political" rather than "mathematical." Still, a re-weighting of votes is deemed essential to ensure the capability of the Council for tackling the challenges of enlargement.
Looking for a loser
The conservative opposition at the national level, the Christian Democratic and Christian Social Unions (CDU/CSU), are already looking for a candidate to challenge Schröder, two years before the next federal election in fall 2002.
Few, even from the "sister parties" themselves, are seriously expecting to oust the present cabinet. Too bright shines the Chancellor's star in the middle of his term. Almost forgotten is the first shaky year, when the Red-Green coalition almost fell apart several times, most notably during the Kosovo crisis.
Today, Schröder boasts the attitude of an unassailable winner. Even the left wing of his party has grown used to his "bourgeois" style. This is because he delivers success and knows how to hold power.
Given these facts, the Christian Democrats, still shaken by their undignified defeat in 1998 and the subsequent slush fund scandal around former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, are not harbouring any illusions about standing a chance in 2002. They can do little more than prepare themselves for a good show.
Traditionally, the basic tension is between the Bavarian CSU and the rest of the Christian Democrats. While it is an unwritten rule that no Bavarian could ever become German Chancellor, running for the top position rallies support at home in Bavaria.
Moreover, the CSU and the right wing of the CDU would love to get rid of federal party chairwoman Angela Merkel, who, ever since taking office, has been denounced from Munich and other right-wing strongholds as too "liberal." Therefore, Bavarian Minister President Edmund Stoiber is being urged by many, also those in the more right-leaning CDU regional branches, to step forward and firmly re-anchor the "Union" on the right.
Friedrich Merz, the outspoken leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, stands no chance as a potential candidate. Next to an unpopular chairwoman, and facing the self-assured Schröder, furthermore, without a Hausmacht (a "homegrown" regional party base) from one of the länder, Merz himself perceives that he will be all but ignored by the mighty länder party chiefs.
Nonetheless, the choice of candidate is likely to set the political direction for years to come, even in the face of certain defeat.
Jens Boysen, 1 December 2000
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