2 , 2000
You may have missed it, but there is a political earthquake going on. An absolutely breathtaking scandal in Germany has been unfolding in the last couple of months, where the former German chancellor (prime minister) Helmut Kohl has been passing enormous illegal donations to his political party, the Christian Democrats (CDU). The case is still unfolding, and the fact that Herr Kohl has refused to name the donors has exacerbated the situation, with his party (which has disowned him) threatening to be fined out of existence. The idea that there is some dark secret behind it is further encouraged by the suicide of a bureaucrat, Wolfgang Hüllen, in charge of fund raising within the CDU. In shades of Vince Foster his family are claiming discrepancies in the official version of events and demanding an independent autopsy. But what is most revealing is the cross border nature of the corruption, and the feeling that the surface has hardly been scratched.
The truly bizarre part of this episode is that it now seems clear that the German Christian Democrats were funded, somehow, by the French Socialists. These funds kept the organisation alive, and in power. You have to understand European politics to see the truly bizarre nature of this. Outside the alarmingly large fringe, the CDU and the French Socialists are the far ends of the Continental European political spectrum. (Britain is different, in the last two decades it has had a Conservative Party that is American in outlook and a Labour Party that is to the left of the Italian Communist Party). The CDU is the right part of European Christian Democracy that makes it centre-right. The free market Liberal parties at least outside Austria, Scandinavia and the Low Countries are little more than coalition ballast; and the French Gaullists do not slot as easily into the left-right split as the CDU. The French Socialists by contrast always kept the left wing torch burning. François Mitterrand’s attempt at socialism in one country was an inspiration to a demoralised non-Soviet left in the early 1980s. By any standards these two parties should have been mortal enemies.
Many Eurosceptics have been jubilant at this. They feel vindicated that Herr Kohl is not the great man that they were told he was, and they feel vindicated in their belief that the consensual European style of leadership is as corrupt as they instinctively felt it was. But they are wrong; this is bad news indeed as the scandal has changed the politics of the EU dramatically for the worse. The problem is the central part played by Gerhard Schroeder, the present German chancellor, in any future construction of Europe. Schroeder was felt to be making a bad hand of his first year in office. His party, the Social Democrats (SPD), disliked him for going too far to the right, while the electorate kept on voting for his Christian Democratic opponents. The combination of a restive party and a string of election losses meant that he had to shore up his electoral position. This in turn meant that he had to make popular decisions to regain some voter approval, this included trying to strong arm Britain into accepting German tax rates over its savings; blocking foreign take-overs; and subsidising failing firms. Winning domestic popularity was playing havoc in Europe as the European Union found itself having to deal with everything from demands for German as an official EU language to refusal to let in British agricultural products (it wasn’t just the French). Now Herr Schroeder can concentrate on being a good European, and as long as no credible opposition exists, he need not trouble himself with his electorate. Another roadblock towards a European state has been removed.
I am going to quickly deal with a conspiracy theory that will come up almost automatically. The idea is that Schroeder would be awkward as long as he was under threat, the French Socialists had information that could relieve the pressure, and so they used that to help Schroeder. This is unlikely. Although the focus is on Germany, the source is still the late President, M Miiterand. This scandal is so large that it cannot be turned off like a tap. The French Socialist Party was the creature of Mitterrand (it welded together four left leaning factions to support his repeated challenges on the Gaullist order). Like Kohl in the CDU, no one could breath in the Socialists without Mitterrand’s permission. Most of the people now in the Socialist Party therefor were close to Mitterrand, and it is unlikely that a few Socialist scalps will not be taken. Not even Socialists are stupid enough to so blatantly play with matches in the woodpile.
It is not just in Germany that French corruption has caused problems. The Israeli President Ezer Weizman is under criminal investigation over payments made to him by a French businessman. The son of the corrupt former Italian Prime Minister, the late Bettino Craxi, has justified the behaviour of Kohl, Mitterrand and his father because they was building a European superstate. The European Commission has resigned on mass (sort of). The most memorable case centred on the former French Prime Minister and mistress of M Mitterrand, Edith Cresson, employing her dentist to carry out Aids research. In France itself the Parisian mayor is being probed for corruption, with the former mayor Jacque Chirac being none other than the President. The behaviour of the French elite seems to have neither respected parties or borders. As Pat Buchanan pointed out, an elite without roots will become an elite without morals.
The British political class seems to be blissfully unaware of what is going on. However, if M Mitterrand saw fit to prop up his colleague in Bonn, why should the English Channel stop him? The obvious target would be the Conservative Party, which during the 1980s was permanently in power, needed to be influenced and were bribable. What would M Mitterrand have gained? Apart from the Channel Tunnel (which the British were keener on anyway), the French seem to have gained little. In fact, the British Conservative Party started their slow and painful journey to realism on Europe during this time. If they were bribed, it was not with great effect. Similarly if French money was funding the centre party Alliance, it was wasted as these parties were for the political losers; they were fine for council by-elections but terrible for winning real power. They may have been easily bought, but they were not value for any money.
So what could have happened to the Labour Party? What could Gallic Gold have possibly bought there? Well a clue is the U-turn that the party made on Europe during the 1980s. In the General Election of 1983 the Labour Party (including a young Anthony Blair) stood on a platform of withdrawal from the European Union. In the period after that it started to move away from that position. By 1987 the Labour Party was still a recognisably left wing party but its leader Neil Kinnock, the present European Commissioner, had moved them in a more moderate direction. One of the changes he made was a reluctant acceptance of the European Union, coupled with a greater scepticism. Then the Labour Party became the Party of Europe. It advocated membership of the Social Chapter, which guaranteed worker rights. It pushed for membership of the disastrous Exchange Rate Mechanism. And its paymasters in the Trade Union Congress were wowed by the head of the European commission (and former Finance Minister in the Mitterrand government) Jacques Delors. But why did the Labour Party change?
There are a number of fairly convincing explanations to explain the sort of motivations that led the Labour Party to embrace Europe, but there is no central direction. The desire for respectability definitely moved Labour from a lot of unpopular policies, on Unilateral Disarmament and higher taxes, but they did not move it to an unpopular policy. A natural desire for big, bureaucratic and corporatist government would definitely show Europe in a good light. The belief that many of the Thatcherite reforms could be reversed on a European level may have appealed. A sincere bloody-minded opposition to any Tory ideas (even if a couple of years ago they were your ideas) would appeal to some activists. A new generation of Polenta scoffing, Chianti quaffing baby boomers may explain the party’s internationalism, although the same generation has produced a global outlook on a previously provincially European Conservative Party. The end of the cold war may have made the EU less identified with the West, making it more attractive to the left and less useful to the right. A general drift to the right may have taken the wind out of the advocates of a Socialist siege economy, but the most effective pro-Europeans joined a breakaway party in the early 1980s; the anti-Europeans had been boosted on the right of the party. All these reasons have some validity, but none of them to me has the feeling of an essential explanation to the whole mystery.
The Labour Party has proved itself amazingly corrupt. Of the items in the public domain (there are more to come out – believe me), we have had one minister getting preferment through a loan to one minister, hospitality to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a holiday home for the Prime Minister. We have had a former neighbour of, and personal donor to, Tony Blair being appointed to head the state-broadcasting corporation. A minister got the government to reverse its stand on Genetically Modified food for a cool two million pounds. Policy on tobacco sponsorship has been reversed in one sector due to a million-pound donation to the Party. A prominent Labour supporter offered exclusive access to the New Labour inner circle for substantial fees. The accountants Arthur Andersen are removed from a fraud blacklist due to their work for the Labour Party and the jobs for prominent Labour politicians. Questions about links of the Mitterrand scandal to the Labour Party itself have been raised by non other than the New Labour journalist, Rachel Sylvester. The question is not whether the Labour Party was for sale, but whether the customer was aware of it.
After piecing together the means (Gallic Gold), the motive (a U-turn on Europe) and the opportunity (a corrupt party leadership), I remain unconvinced. Perhaps it’s being an Englishman but I can not believe that a fellow Englishman would betray his country for something as vulgar as money. I also do not believe that the French would think perfidious Albion as worth the money, as they would a pliant Germany. However, what is certain is that we have not heard the last of this very international corruption scandal. Come to think of it, has Al Gore been making any calls to Paris recently?
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