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Western Press Review: Germany Assessed 100 Days After Left Took Power

Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- "What is a German?" asks Canada's national daily Globe Mail today, in a modern-day echo of an ancient question. Just over 100 days after the new left-coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens took power in Bonn, both German and other Western commentators are busy appraising the current state of Europe's largest economy and weightiest political entity. Their views differ in many respects, but all agree on the importance of Germany's well-being not only to the rest of Europe but to the world at large.

GLOBE AND MAIL: Changing the citizenship law is a simple matter of justice

The Globe and Mail writes in its editorial: "For more than 100 years, German citizenship has been based solely on blood. If you lived in Russia all your life but had a German great-grandfather, you could immigrate to Germany and be welcomed as a full citizen even if you spoke no German. If you lived in Germany all your life but had Turkish parents [as is the case for more than two million German residents], you might never get citizenship, even if you spoke no language other than German.'

The editorial then goes to say: "The best thing that Gerhard Schroeder has done in his disappointing months as German Chancellor is address this glaring injustice. A new nationality law would give all children born in Germany the automatic right to citizenship, as long as at least one parent was born [or raised] in the country....An immigrant could apply for citizenship."

But the paper notes that the proposed new citizenship law has run into "great political trouble," and indeed yesterday -- probably after the G&M locked up its editorial -- the Schroeder government withdrew the draft law because an electoral defeat it suffered Sunday effectively made it impossible to pass the law through both houses of the German parliament."

"That is a shame," comments the Globe and Mail. "If some immigrants have failed to integrate into German society, it is at least partly because the old citizenship law made them feel unwelcome....Making belonging depend on blood is an archaic and sometimes dangerous idea, as Germans know better than most. Changing the citizenship law is a simple matter of justice. Mr. Schroeder should press ahead."

WASHINGTON POST: Schroeder favors Germany

In a commentary for the Washington Post yesterday, foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland takes a somewhat more benign look at Schroeder, saying the Chancellor's "Germany has decided to be German." Hoagland cites approvingly a remark of French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine " who, after observing the new chancellor at work, reportedly told a colleague: '[Commentators and many diplomats] have it wrong in asking if Schroeder favors Britain over France, or France over Britain. Schroeder favors Germany. That is what we all have to understand."

Hoagland goes to say that Schroeder "has fashioned the beginnings of a more activist German foreign policy openly centered on national interest. While cooperating with his U.S. or European partners, Schroeder is constantly looking over his shoulder at German unemployment and other domestic concerns that brought him to power, a preoccupation he betrayed while speaking to an audience of allied defense officials and experts in [Munich last weekend]."

Schroeder, the commentary notes further, also warned high Western officials attending the Munich conference that "if they once again failed to be effective in taking on more of the defense burden, 'then Europe will have no right to complain about others taking unilateral decisions.' This is the kind of argument of necessity Schroeder has used to begin to transform the political culture of the German Left. Like Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Tony Blair in Britain, Schroeder won outflanking his party's outdated beliefs and campaign styles while his opponents kept a more traditional view of constituencies that are in fact undergoing dramatic change."

LE MONDE: The Chancellor must demonstrate a more transparent leadership of his coalition

The French national daily Le Monde focuses its editorial on what changes may be expected in German policy after Sunday's surprising defeat of the so-called "Red-Green" coalition in the west German state [lande] of Hesse -- the same defeat that triggered Schroeder's withdrawal yesterday of his proposed new immigration and citizenship law. The paper says that "the election campaign in Hesse, with the help of the local CDU [opposition Christian Democratic Union], turned into a referendum on the question of reforming of the citizenship law."

"This law," Le Monde continues, "[fore]saw a radical change [in policy]. But it [fitted] a country [like Germany] with a vast multi-cultural society. It would [have limited] the difficult personal situations that often occur in immigration matters. "

The paper says further: "On this question, Germany has shown its generosity: what other country in Western Europe has opened its gates for so many of those who left the former Yugoslavia?" It concluded: "The Chancellor must demonstrate a more transparent leadership of his coalition. There can be no such thing as compulsion in this great and strong democracy that time and again has shown its ability to adapt."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Perhaps the CDU can offer more serious criticism of Schroeder's first months in office

The Wall Street Journal Europe, a staunchly conservative newspaper, today uncharacteristically attacks not the German Left but rather the country's conservative CDU for making the immigration and citizenship issue "its chief bone of contention with the Social Democrats and the Greens." The paper says: "Germany's ruling [Left] alliance has so effectively bungled its first months in office that it should be easy enough for the opposition to find something worth criticizing....But," the paper adds, "the opposition Christian Democratic Union has picked as [the special] target of its venom the one Red-Green idea that makes some sense [--that is, changing the prevailing citizenship laws.]"

The paper's editorial goes on to say: "For much of the past month, the CDU in an unpleasant alliance with such extremists as the xenophobic Republikaner Party has been bombarding airwaves and plastering walls with advertisements railing against the Government proposal to make life easier for Germany's huge immigrant population." It notes that this effective campaign probably was responsible for the Left defeat in the Hesse election, "an important setback that have cost the Red-Green coalition their majority in the Bundesrat [upper house of parliament]."

According to the WSJ, that loss "should have the salutary effect of making it more difficult for the Red-Green Government to turn its bad economic ideas into policy. But," it continues, "the CDU's campaign tactics in Hesse made it fairly clear that it has no interest in proposing its own solutions to Germany's economic woes....It would be a shame," the WSJ sums up, "if the CDU really thinks that immigration was the only deciding factor in [the Hesse] vote. More likely, general dissatisfaction with the Red-Green's performance also played an important role. But now that it has its victory, perhaps the CDU can set its mind to offering a more serious criticism of Gerhard Schroeder's first months in office."

BASLER ZEITUNG: No enterprise would make a gesture of good will on its own

The Swiss Basler Zeitung comments on another problem faced by the Schroeder government -- Germany's huge Deutsche Bank's approach to compensation to slave laborers -- most of them East European and non-Jewish -- during the Nazi period. The papers says that "Rolf Breuer, Board Chairman of the Deutsche Bank, is in favor of a new openness. This," it says, "is proven by the revelation of Deutsche Bank's involvement in financing [the construction of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp] -- a discovery made by a historian who is an employee of the Deutsche Bank."

The editorial goes on: "German economic leaders and the German government have, after the experience of Switzerland, grasped more speedily what threats [of retribution] can lead to. All the better, one would say. Yet it is worth noting that this kind of solution is always attained only under pressure. No enterprise would own up to [this kind of] error and make a gesture of good will on its own."


The German press, too, is preoccupied with -- and very worried about -- the country's domestic problems. Reflecting the views of several regional dailies today, the Westdeutsche Allgemeine, published in Essen, warns of "dark clouds on the horizon for the relatively new Red-Green ruling coalition Government in Bonn. The all-powerful metallurgical union," the paper adds, "threatening to a strike action in its wage dispute [with industry and the Government], and the employers themselves are also flexing their muscles. All this," the paper notes, "is going on against a background of what a senior [unnamed] Social Democrat has described as a general "lack of ideas.'"

"Nothing seem to fit," the editorial goes on. "Criticism of the Government's leadership has taken hold behind the scenes with the [Left's] rank-and-file." It concludes: "Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder appears to be facing a whole lot more than a week of street Carnival festivities in the Rhineland [10 Carnival days ending Feb. 16]."

NEUE PRESSE: There must be a better way

The Neue Presse in Hanover takes Germany's metallurgical sector to particular task. It says: "Instead of finding new ways to combat the specter of unemployment, unions and employers have reverted to their 'old ways.' It is certainly possible a compromise solution can be found at the last minute -- there are enough examples of that in the past -- but that will cost money, wear people's nerves to a frazzle and expend all that energy unnecessarily. Surely," the paper concludes, "there must be a better way."

RHEINISCHE POST: The Finance Minister hardly seems to be aware of the tax problem!

The problem of how the Government can reform the nation's antiquated and complicated tax system elicits a barrage of warning words from the Rheinische Post, published in Duesseldorf. "This is an extremely sensitive issue," the paper says. "Get things wrong and the Government loses thousands of millions [of marks] in tax revenues, and wrong investments can cost additional thousands of millions."

The paper concludes: "One can only hope that the tax experts in the Finance Ministry and among the coalition partners are aware of the dangers. But," it notes pessimistically, "Finance Minister [Oscar Lafontaine] hardly seems to be aware of the problem!"