Monday, August 30, 2004

Ditching the European dream?

First Blair, then Chirac and now – possibly – Schröder, the third of the "big three", looks like he may give way to a referendum on the EU constitution.

The hint comes from president of the SPD, Franz Muentefering, who has agreed with his coalition ally, the Greens, to seek a change in the basic law that would permit a referendum. Muentefering is also appealing to the opposition Christian Democrats to support any change in the basic law.

All this comes at a time when demonstrators are turning out in record numbers to protest against Schröder's economic reforms, with opposition particularly strong in East Germany, the chancellor's electoral heartland.

Today, Schröder faces a massive protest in the eastern city of Leipzig, led by former ally, "Red" Oskar Lafontaine. Once Schröder’s finance minister, he resigned in 1999 and disappeared from mainstream politics but now, as the German leader dips in the polls, with his party scoring a mere 26 percent, Lafontaine is re-emerging.

With Lafontaine taking a more active role, it now looks as if the SDP/Green alliance is beginning to unravel, leaving the SDP fatally weakened. Practically the only popular policy that Schröder could now adopt it to go for a referendum, which attracted 81 percent support in a poll in July, as a last ditch effort to hold together the alliance.

The chances are, however, that this would bring only temporary respite, as voters would almost certainly use a referendum as an opportunity to express their disapproval of Schröder’s domestic policies. However, with a key regional election in Brandenburg on 19 September – where the SDP is challenged by former communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the chancellor needs every advantage he can gain.

As we draw closer to the signing of the EU constitution, due in October, and enter the ratification period, therefore, it looks like the embattled chancellor might be prepared to ditch the European dream in favour of domestic salvation.

This all goes to prove the point that my colleague made recently, that despite the enthusiasm for European integration, when it comes to a conflict between European and national politics, there is no contest.

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