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Germany: Government Lacks Unity Of Purpose

Prague, 27 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Only a month after coming to power, Germany's new leftist government is having problems in speaking with a single voice about both its internal and foreign policies.

In its first four weeks in office, the coalition of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists has puzzled Germany and its allies with contradictory statements on subjects ranging from the eastward expansion of the European Union, immigration policy, NATO nuclear policy and its internal social and financial plans.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his government are under fire not only from the opposition but also from their own allies in the provincial governments, who argue that some of the coalition's plans will cut their own revenues.

A sympathetic commentator, Peter Lutz, said on German radio today that it was inevitable that the government would face what he called "teething problems" because the Social Democrats have been out of power for 16 years. There were also differences of approach to some problems between the Social Democrats and their Green partners in the coalition.

"But the period of probation is limited," Lutz said. "Ministers cannot continue differing in public on government plans." Like several other commentators, he suggested that Chancellor Schroeder might have to intervene more forcefully to impose discipline on his team.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a Green, is at the center of several of the differences. He caused consternation within NATO by suggesting that the Alliance should end the policy under which it reserves the right to use nuclear arms first. His comments were promptly contradicted by his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, a Social Democrat, who said the German government had no intention of questioning any core element of NATO strategy.

It was an embarrassment for Scharping, who was visiting Washington at the time on his first visit as defense minister and apparently had a difficult meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. The German government later issued a statement saying the foreign and defense ministries would develop a unified policy on the first strike question. But several U.S. commentators said this statement still left open the question of how German policy would develop.

Immigration policy is the source of another dispute with the Greens. Interior Minister Otto Schily, a Social Democrat, angered them by saying that Germany's capacity to take new immigrants has been exceeded. It has long been a basic policy of the Greens that Germany is a land of immigration. The interior minister's remarks were perceived as an attack on this policy.

There is also some uneasiness about the new government's policy on the eastward expansion of the European Union. Germany is committed to it, but Chancellor Schroeder raised some eyebrows during a visit to Brussels this week when he warned against setting deadlines for admitting new members. He said enlargement should have the character of a process "so that we cannot say exactly when it should be completed."

The five Central and East European countries in the first group of candidates are working toward membership by the year 2003. Germany's views are important not only because of its central role in Europe but because it takes over the chairmanship of the European Union on January 1 and will have a leading role in directing membership negotiations.

Schroeder is also facing a minor revolt within his own Social Democratic party. German commentators say that to some extent this reflects differences between the modernizers and the traditionalists in the party. Some believe the struggle will lead to turbulence within the party which could last for a long time.

This week several Social Democratic premiers in the provincial governments voiced alarm over the government's tax plans. Schroeder's national government wants to cut personal taxes and finance them by closing tax advantages enjoyed by business and industry. But at least one SPD provincial premier -- who supports the modernist wing of the party --- said openly last week that the tax reforms were inadequate and based on false premises which would do nothing to cut unemployment (running at more than 10 percent). Others have warned that the tax plans could damage the finances of the provinces, which share tax revenues with the national government.

The ideas of Finance Minister Oscar Lafontaine are viewed warily by several European governments. Lafontaine has proposed harmonizing corporate taxes and suggested setting target zones for key international currencies. He also was held largely responsible for a row over the tax treatment for part-time workers earning $65 or less a month. Eventually Chancellor Schroeder stepped in with his own solution, but this angered the provinces, which said they had not been consulted and argued it would cost them tax revenue.

Some German commentators feel that Schroeder has to define himself before he can impose discipline on his coalition government. These critics note that in his successful election campaign Schroeder managed to appear both as someone committed to modernizing the Social Democratic party and as a traditional Social Democrat sensitive to the problems of workers.

Many analysts commented during the campaign that Schroeder appeared to be deliberately ambiguous about practical policies. The campaign is over and most commentators feel that the time for ambiguity has also passed. Schroeder is now expected to come forward with a clear line about the problems facing Germany and Europe.