Europe discovers a surprising leader

Schroeder: Germany's centrist chancellor consolidates authority in country and continent.

April 04, 1999

ALTHOUGH BARELY noticed during the U.S.-led storm over Serbia, Europe is seeing a new political leader emerge, one who had been discounted. Gerhard Schroeder is taking his place as the most influential head of government there.

Germany's chancellor showed that when he chaired the marathon European Union summit meeting in Berlin following the collapse of the EU's commission. Under his guidance, the 15 members of the supranational economic body picked Italy's former Prime Minister Romano Prodi to head a new commission committed to efficiency and honesty.

Then the summit hammered out a reform budget to accommodate prospective members from Eastern Europe. The EU crisis, though not over, is under control.

Mr. Schroeder was the personable, centrist, state governor pushed forward as the Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor (or prime minister) of Germany. He was the figurehead needed because the party's leader, Oskar Lafontaine, was too doctrinaire and confrontational.

After last September's election victory, Mr. Schroeder put together a coalition government. He was Europe's new man, proclaiming pro-business policies from the party of the left, modeling himself on Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Clinton.

But Mr. Schroeder was viewed by many as a lightweight prisoner of the left, dominated by his finance minister, Mr. Lafontaine, and his pacifist coalition partner, Joschka Fischer, who became foreign minister.

This illusion ended March 12 when Mr. Lafontaine quit the infighting, abandoning party and national leadership to Mr. Schroeder. Meanwhile, Mr. Fischer has reinvented himself as a Western statesman.

When conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl reunified the nation, absorbing Communist East Germany in 1990, he remained in Bonn. He really enlarged West Germany. Easterners felt colonized.

The decision to move government to Berlin by 2000, delayed in spirit, is being rushed by Mr. Schroeder, who despises Bonn. This year, booming Berlin will resume the aura it enjoyed from 1871 to 1945 as a great European capital like Paris, Rome and London.

Almost invisible in the onslaught against Serbia on Wednesday were four German warplanes, the first to attack another country in 54 years. Germany is coming out of its shell of self-effacement. Increasingly, it will advance German interests. Mr. Schroeder is poised to unify Germany psychologically.

Not all its neighbors are comfortable, remembering Germany's dominance and aggression in World Wars I and II. But German integration into Europe is undoubted; the contributions of Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Mr. Kohl are honored. Foes of German unification in 1990 were run over by Washington's enthusiasm and Moscow's acquiescence.

Germany is Europe's dominant nation, economically and politically. That makes the unlikely Mr. Schroeder Europe's new leader.

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