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Germany: What Does The Election Mean For Central And Eastern Europe?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left coalition narrowly retained power in yesterday's general election. For many months, the process of eastward enlargement of the European Union has been held hostage by this election. The common wisdom was that no difficult issues in the enlargement could be settled until a new government was seated in Berlin. Schroeder is back, so what are the consequences for Central and Eastern Europe?

Prague, 23 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Putting off difficult decisions for later solution is a favorite tactic at the European Union. And it often works, given the complex nature of obtaining cohesive decisions from so many member countries. The reasoning goes that it's better to avoid open splits and decide things later, when the heat may have subsided from the issue in question.

In the EU's eastward expansion process, the German parliamentary election played a similar sort of role for most of this year. The common wisdom was that nothing could be decided until a new government was installed in Berlin. This had the "advantage" of allowing the EU to avoid making decisions on explosive issues, like how to apply the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to the acceding countries.

But now the election is over, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his center-left "Red-Green" coalition of Social Democrats and Greens is apparently returning to the corridors of power in Berlin.

Movement on the key issues of EU enlargement is urgent if the negotiations with the first-wave candidate countries are to be finished on schedule by December.

It has been eight months since the European Commission presented its proposal on farm support for accession countries, but that proposal has still not been formally endorsed by member states.

Germany and other net contributors Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands have said the EU must first cut its farm costs before it can make concrete offers to new members. France, the biggest beneficiary under the policy, rejects immediate reform of the CAP.

As Heather Grabbe, senior analyst with the London-based Centre for European Reform, put it, the time to resolve that issue is short. "The question is whether the European Union will be held back by Germany's [prospective] lengthy search for a 'Red-Green' coalition, because the election result was so narrow that it could take quite awhile for them to come up with final results, and also to decide on the allocation of portfolios in the new government, and the EU does not have much time to lose," Grabbe said.

In addition, Grabbe said that Schroeder and the Greens are the ones who favor early reform of the CAP and also of EU institutions -- something costly of time if it is to take place before enlargement. She said Schroeder's conservative rival in the election, Edmund Stoiber, would probably have been more ready to strike a deal with French President Jacques Chirac under which enlargement could go ahead under the present CAP, which would then be reformed after 2006.

Such potentially complicating factors, Grabbe said, should make the enlargement negotiations a "thriller" right up until the end.

Another analyst, Wichard Woyke of the Social and Political Science Institute of Muenster University in Germany, said Schroeder is very cost-conscious. Berlin is already the main paymaster for most of the EU's activities. "Germany certainly will not support an agricultural policy that costs it a lot more money, only one that's neutral in costs, meaning that expenditure would remain at previous levels, or [even] fall," Woyke said.

Woyke noted, however, that despite Berlin's preoccupation with money, the re-election of the Red-Green coalition means that expansion of the EU remains Germany's most important policy toward the east.

The analyst said another factor also remains the same, independent of the result of the election. That's the concern in certain sections of the population in the west that eastward expansion means being swamped by workers seeking jobs. "That's one of the fears. The other fear is that of organized crime, that when the borders are open, it will be much easier for the mafia to come here to Western Europe," Woyke said.

In Bonn, analyst Stefan Maarteels of the German ZEI think tank raised the point that Schroeder waged the election campaign partly on the basis of "putting Germany first." Although the chancellor is no nationalist, he criticized the European Commission in unusually strong terms, saying that it did not "understand" Germany's needs. He also took a strong line against the U.S. campaign to oust President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Maarteel said that, although transparently used as election ploys, these lines could take on real substance. That's because having supported them so staunchly, Schroeder cannot immediately abandon them now. His stand on Iraq has already damaged relations with the United States, and the row with the commission has created the impression that Germany is not as pro-European as it always was.

However, ending on an optimistic note, Maarteel said that Schroeder is less preoccupied with Germany's complicated past than is his rival Stoiber. "On the other hand, Stoiber would have thought more about problems from the past that have become topical again these days, like the Benes Decrees," Maarteel said.

The Benes Decrees, which were issued by the Czechoslovak government at the end of World War II, expelled ethnic Germans from the country. Political elements in Austria and Germany are pressing for these expellees to be compensated, and they have linked Czech membership in the EU to resolution of this issue.