Prague, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Much commentary in today's West European press focuses on the triumph of German opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Gerhard Schroeder, who won a decisive victory yesterday in a critical election in the state (Land) of Lower Saxony. The vote, which gave the SPD its biggest victory margin in the state since World War Two, was important because it made Schroeder the all-but-official candidate to face conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl in German general elections due in seven months (Sept. 27). West European analysts also have been preoccupied with the fortunes of the European Union's single currency, the 'euro,' due to be launched at the start of next year by 11 of the EU's 15 members.
LE FIGARO: Kohl has only a single defining idea for his country
While most of GermanyUs newspaper closed their pages too early yesterday to comment on Schroeder's victory, the rest of Western Europe's press has a lot to say about the election's significance. In France, the conservative daily Figaro writes today of the election's effect of Helmut Kohl. It says that "the Chancellor of German unity, in power for 16 years, could be enthroned next to Otto von Bismark in history. This is an advantage, but also a handicap. Like all the great men of the 20th century --above all Churchill and de Gaulle--- Kohl has (only) a single defining idea for his country."
LIBERATION: Gerhard Schroeder has won himself a first-class ticket to the Chancellor's post
In a news analysis from Bonn in the Left-of-Center daily Liberation, correspondent Lorraine Millot says that it not entirely certain whether what he calls "Kohl's massive intervention in the election was a bonus or a handicap." Still, he goes on to say that Kohl, "the 'rock among the waves,' who is celebrated abroad as the Chancellor of unification and European unity, has become in Germany the Chancellor of inaction who is responsible for five million unemployed." He calls the election result "a black omen for Kohl, who is hoping for a fifth mandate as Chancellor." Millot writes: "The problem for Kohl is that he personally intervened to stop Schroeder on his own territory (with) 11 rallies in Lower Saxony these last weeks --a record number that makes Schroeder's victory a personal defeat for Kohl." And he adds: "(With 48.5 percent of the vote) Gerhard Schroeder has won himself a first-class ticket to the Chancellor's post....Schroeder's victory is so clear it could initiate a period of turbulence for Kohl."
NEUE ZUERICHE ZEITUNG: Schroeder has clear prospects of dethroning Kohl
Switzerland's Neue Zueriche Zeitung runs an editorial on Schroeder entitled "With Bravura, Over The First Hurdle." It says: "Schroeder was assisted to victory by his assured, genial TV manner and oratorical talent. The Lower Saxony voters seem to be little perturbed by the vague economic policy of their minister president; they place more trust in his pragmatism than in the free-market tinged economic zeal of (Christian) Wulff, (Schroeder's Christian Democratic Union, CDU) rival. The disappointing (35 percent) result for Wulff could again set in motion the discussion within the (governing German conservative coalition) as to whether it was really wise in the final analysis to draw (Wulff), who has long been considered to be worn out, into the battle for power in Bonn."
The Swiss paper continues: "Schroeder has impressively (jumped over the first) hurdle in for the competition for the candidacy for chancellor. With all their love for their Leftist party leader Oskar (Lafontaine), SPD party members cannot afford to hold back (Schroeder,) a popular politician with clear prospects of dethroning Kohl in the Autumn....Schroeder has hitherto been demonstrative in his deference to the party: this has not hurt him in Lower Saxony, and it will not hurt him in the battle with Kohl either. His first-rate triumph on Sunday has given him the best chance to be his party's candidate for chancellor."
DER STANDARD: Schroeder is a man full of contradictions
In Vienna, the Right-of-Center daily Der Standard carries an editorial entitled "Two Souls in Schroeder's Breast." The paper writes: "Schroeder is a man full of contradictions. This does not mean that the Lower Saxony minister president is without principles, which he expounds as the need arises, but only that (sometimes) these principles contradict one another. (That's Schroeder's) unrivaled specialty. ... (His) bonus is that everything about him has an authentic effect: both the Right-wing pragmatist as well as the Left-wing reformer. Gerhard Schroeder himself sees no contradiction in this."
DIE PRESSE: Others see in Schroeder above all a chameleon
The conservative Austrian daily Die presse also sees Schroeder's as without a clear political program, writing: "While with Lafotaine, it is clear what he stands for (i.e., classic Social Democratic values), things are somewhat different with Schroeder. Some consider him to be a bearer of hope to rebuild the SPD according to the proven British model, which would rid the party of some of its Leftist ballast. Others see in Schroeder above all a chameleon, who fits his politics according to opportunity --and when it is imperative jettisons everything overboard."
FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Schroeder poses a threat to Mr. Kohl's coalition
In a news analysis in Britain's Financial Times, Peter Norman and Ralph Atkins write from Germany that Schroeder is "aiming for the (political) center." They say that Schroeder's "elevation to the role of challenger --today's nomination and selection by the SPD's 45-strong managing board will be a formality-- will upset Mr. Kohl's calculations. In recent months, the Chancellor has made no secret of his wish and expectation that the SPD would choose Oscar Lafontaine...to take the field against him and fight a class-based confrontational election campaign ." Their analysis continues: "Mr. Schroeder poses a greater threat to Mr. Kohl's coalition as he wants to shift the center of gravity to the center. Echoing (British Labor Prime Minister) Tony Blair...Mr. Schroeder talks of winning over 'a new middle' in German politics."
CORRIERE DELLA SERA: The election demonstrates a triumph for Gerhard Schroeder
The Italian press today also devotes a good deal of attention to Schroeder's victory. Corriere Della Sera calls it "a triumph for Gerhard Schroeder...and a hard result for the Chancellor of reunification, who must now gather with his CDU party and rethink its (general election) campaign plan."
LA STAMPA: The result shows an important new reality for election politics in Germany
La Stampa says the Lower Saxony election "shows an important new reality for election politics in Germany, with a primary that moves more towards the American model. The vote in Lower Saxony shows that Social Democratic voters --and not the party-- choose the candidate for Chancellor."
LA REPUBBLICA: Schroeder is the new face of power in Europe
La Repubblica calls Schroeder "the new face of power in Europe [who] has defeated not only the CDU, but the orthodox wing of his own party."
IL MESSAGERO: Whoever wants to lead the country must first be elevated to the throne of his own district
And Il Messagero comments on "the paradox of the German system: a region like Lower Saxony with six million voters can influence the national election due on September 27. But federalism in Germany means that whoever wants to lead the country must first be elevated to the throne of his own district."
West European commentators have also been assessing the importance of last Friday's announcements by 11 of the European Union's 15 members that they consider themselves eligible for joining the EU's Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) when it is launched on January 1 of next year. Most believe that the EU's scheduled special summit meeting in two months (May 2-3) will also find all members save Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Greece --the first three have opted out of the euro, while Greece is considered economically ineligible-- as meeting EMU's stiff criteria.
FINANCIAL TIMES: Skeptics have been proved wrong
In an editorial today entitled "It Looks Like Eleven," the British Financial Times calls meeting the EMU economic standards set down in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty "the first step" toward creating EMU. The paper writes: "It has undoubtedly been a painful process, with the cost felt in strict control of public spending, and stubbornly high unemployment rates. (But) it was also a necessary process, with or without the euro." The editorial continues: "In spite of the agony, (meeting the Maastricht criteria) might yet prove to have been the easiest (step). Sustaining the process will be the real challenge....Of course, the (member Governments') statistics have been massaged (that is, manipulated). Italy's once-off Euro-tax, France's use of the France Telecom pension fund to bolster its budget, and Germany's reclassification of hospital debt --all these are questionable. But so is the (EU's) rigid adherence to (the Maastricht standard of) three percent (of gross national product) as a measure of acceptable deficit. What matters is real economic convergence."
The paper concludes: "The question now is whether the 11 will behave as members of a monetary union from the launch day of January 1, 1999. That will require a degree of political coordination none has yet learned. And the challenge will be coping with (high EU) unemployment....But political conviction is what got them to the starting line. Thus far it has been the skeptics who have been proved wrong."
EL PAIS: All the countries that wanted to be part of the euro have passed the entrance exam
Spain's El Pais writes in its editorial today: "In Europe, the end of the century also has room for miracles. All the countries of the European Union --except Greece-- have complied with the most important requirements established in the Maastricht treaty for access into the final phase of monetary union by next January 1....The (EU's Executive) Commission and the European Monetary Institute (the present forerunner of EMU's coming central bank) must still verify the figures, but in principle all the countries that wanted to be part of the euro have passed the entrance exam...[It is] a magnificent macro-economic result."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: 11 say they are ready and so they are regarded as ready
In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung several days ago (Feb. 26), Winfried Muenster was more skeptical in his commentary. He wrote: "The...11 say they are ready and so they are regarded as ready. All are currently presenting the series of economic data demanded under the conditions of the Maastricht treaty to prove they have qualified for the euro. And they are all pre-judging the examination by saying in advance: We have qualified." Muenster continued: "This is (meant as) a recognition of the way things work in the EU, especially the psychology of the EU summit conference. Several candidate countries, including the vital states France and Germany, are presenting economic data which has little or no meaning....But it would also be politically unimaginable for a head of government to declare his country to have qualified at the decisive summit meeting in Brussels on May 2, only to see his colleagues contradict him and refuse his country membership."
Muenster concluded: "As with everything else in the EU, the examination of whether countries qualify for the euro will remain within the boundaries of diplomatic politeness. Nothing will be permitted to disturb the heads of state and governments at their summit ---no matter how critical the reports about qualification are from the EU Commission, the European Monetary Institute, the Bundesbank and even the debaters in Germany's parliament."