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Daily Telegraph 2000-02-17: Now Schauble falls

SOMETHING is rotten in the state of Germany. Rarely has a resignation been more overdue than that of the German opposition leader Wolfgang Schauble. The chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finally stepped down yesterday, having clung to office for more than three months while a scandal over illegal donations to the party became, in his own words, "the worst crisis in its history". Helmut Kohl bequeathed a fatal legacy to his heir, but Mr Schauble's long agony has compounded the damage. What has shocked and angered ordinary Germans most is not merely the colossal scale of the corruption: worst of all have been the lies and evasions, the closing of ranks and blustering arrogance of the country's political elite.

The most exalted culprit of all, Mr Kohl, admits placing himself above the law, but refuses to resign as an MP, thereby renouncing parliamentary privilege, and behaves as if his investigators were the criminals. (Guilty of lese majeste?) Mr Schauble himself has changed his story several times: first denying all knowledge of the arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber, then admitting that he had met this shady figure, finally that he had accepted a large cash sum in an envelope. Now his version of events has been challenged, precipitating a mutiny in the ranks that was also long overdue. In Hesse, anti-Semitism was added to the witches' brew, when it emerged that a former party treasurer, Prince Wittgenstein, had lied about "Jewish" cash secreted in Swiss bank accounts. President Rau, the Social Democratic head of state, is in no position to throw stones, since it emerged that he, too, was embroiled in a separate scandal about which he had been economical with the Wahrheit.

Even with the best caretaker leader on offer, Kurt Biedenkopf, the CDU will offer Helmut Schroder, the Chancellor, no serious challenge for the foreseeable future. But the German Christian Democrats cannot, like their Italian counterparts, vanish from the scene. Not only are the two major parties funded by the state; the party duopoly, which endows their leaders with vast patronage, is in effect protected by it. The CDU remains a constituent part of the Federal Republic, designed to stabilise the fissiparous tendencies that had undermined the Weimar Republic. Hence its collapse is widely, if wrongly, seen as a crisis of German democracy - which would in reality benefit from a shake-up.

This canker at the heart of the most successful post-war party in Europe should dampen the Blair Government's enthusiasm for the German model of proportional representation, state funding and coalition government. But we should be even warier of our partners' attempt to recreate the Kohl system on a grander scale: as a Federal Republic of Europe.

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