14 September 2005

The Web

Schroeder’s impossible task

Michaela Muscat

The future is not looking completely bleak for the current Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder in anticipation of the forthcoming Sunday federal elections.
“Malta is not in the direct orbit of Germany, unlike Russia, Israel, Nato and the European Union,” says former Maltese Ambassador in Berlin, William Spiteri. Either way whichever party will be ruling Germany in the coming years, it will not have any direct bearing on Malta’s relationship with Germany.
Since World War II, Malta has enjoyed increasingly beneficial and satisfactory relations with Germany. Around 50 German firms including Playmobil and Lufthansa have invested heavily in Malta and German tourists are the second largest group to contribute to Malta’s Gross Domestic Product.
Polls are indicating that since the commencement of the televised debates with his main challenger, Angela Merkel from the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), Schroeder’s Social Democrat’s popularity is on the increase, topping 33.5 per cent in the latest polls.
Merkel whose party’s coalition with CSU tops the polls at 43 per cent “inspires” Spiteri. He has often had the opportunity to converse with the first female head of the CDU outside her office, since it is adjacent to the Maltese embassy. Spiteri is of the opinion that “the main difference in foreign policy should Merkel win, is the stance regarding Turkey’s membership in the EU.” Unlike the SDP, which consents to Turkey’s membership, Merkel is proposing an enhanced partnership.
A Merkel victory might also signify enhanced transatlantic relations, although critics fear that this might come at the dear price of her being a US lackey. “Schroder was curt with the US regarding the Iraq war. But it would be fair to say that he has worked on softening Germany’s stance and improving the relations. In fact German soldiers are helping out with the reconstruction of Iraq by training Iraqi soldiers on Saudi Arabian soil,” says Spiteri.
In so far as the German-Maltese Chamber of Commerce is concerned, “the foreign policy adopted by the German government in respect to Malta, and German-Maltese relations, will always be that of mutual collaboration and respect within the framework of the European Union and that of the long standing bilateral relations.”
Schroeder, who heads the coalition between the left of centre SPD and the German Green party, presently estimated at a joint percentage of 40.5 per cent, has managed to live up to his reputation of captivating his audience during debates.
Polls show that voters prefer him to Merkel. Schroeder surprisingly commands 50 per cent popularity to Merkel’s lowly 43 per cent in the polls.
A barrage of criticism was showered on Schroeder by both his opposition foes as well as supposed allies like unions and former party members like La Fontaine. The schism with other leftists might make a coalition harder to stomach. In fact Schroeder has denied unfounded claims by the opposition that his victory would mean that ex-communists would return to power. A coalition between the SDP, Greens and the Left Alliance - headed by La Fontaine and ex communists – could mean a third term for Schroeder, since they all add up to 48.5 per cent. However, Schroeder has dismissed the idea completely.
“La Fontaine and Schroeder are mortal enemies and I can’t see the possibility of a coalition. The reforms instigated by Schroeder have hit the working class grassroots of the SDP particularly hard, instigating politicians like La Fontaine to leave the party,” says Spiteri.
After distancing themselves during the three months of campaigning, the Green Foreign Affairs Minister, Joschka Fisher and Schroeder seem to have resigned themselves to the reality that they need to work as a duo to win. In Monday’s debate they presented a united front against the conservatives including Merkel and her possible partners from the Free Democrats.
The Greens had been critical of Schroeder’s reluctance to criticise Russia’s human rights deficiency. Merkel has remarked that their good relations with Russia should not turn out to be a disadvantage to other countries, specifically referring to Poland, who like other former USSR members are notoriously wary of the motherland. Merkel has promised an upheaval in the structures that should lessen bureaucracy and help ease the rigid labour laws.
Spiteri says, “her argument is based on her belief that the result of globalisation and Eastern European states joining the EU has brought about an influx of lower wage, highly educated workers. This has encouraged German industry to invest outside its national borders, thus increasing unemployment.”
Schroeder has had to defend his record on historic levels of unemployment, the rise in Germany’s debt and for the first time in recent history, a foreign policy that has been highly critical to that of the United States. Schroeder’s election in 1998 signalled a crucial unique direction for German politics in more ways one. From the insignificant switch from suits to the informal sweater attire when starting out as a novice parliamentarian, to being the first Chancellor since the end of World War II to deploy German troops outside Nato territory.
“Germans are scared of being misinterpreted by others and they have acquiesced to their image as an economic giant and a relative political dwarf,” says the former ambassador. Germany, usually a global force to be reckoned with on all levels, always takes the back seat in military assignments. It does not like to assert its military force, especially when it concerns ambivalent military quests that could be interpreted as an invasion - Iraq is a case in point. “Germans have always been actively sceptic of their role in wars because of their Nazi past,” says Spiteri. “Schroeder has been actively working to move Germany out of the backwater and so he has often stressed that Germany should occupy a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.”
Other states, including the traditionally politically powerful France, tend to subtly shun Germany when taking strategic military decisions. Indicating that they expect Germany to go along with whatever they decide.
But if the Schroeder election brought about changes in foreign policy methodology, he is not expected to bring about any radical changes if elected again. He called the election prematurely because his increasing inability to govern reached its apex when his party lost the stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Most of the regions are governed by members of the CDU, who often block or delay Schroeder’s reforms and no matter who wins this federal election, this fact will not change. Indeed Merkel has said that a win for SDP will bring about no change, with Schroeder stating that it would invigorate his policies. Last July, Schroeder urged his party to vote against his government for a motion of no confidence to trigger elections.
Very recently observers were betting on a Merkel victory, but in this rat race, it is not over until the fat lady sings.


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