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The Age of Oskar

ZURICH: Europe's new master and man of the future, Oskar Lafontaine, is man of the past. He is not of the comfortable center left that many of us have become used to, he is of the unreconstructed left, 1960s-style. Lafontaine is bright, a schemer, and winner in Germany's struggle for domestic political mastery. If he gets his way Lafontaine will shape the future of Europe, and not for the better.

Skirmishes with the centre-left are nothing new for Europe: Jacques Delors championed a Christian-Democrat view; Lionel Jospin comes from even further left than that. They both wound up in the middle, compromising with capital markets.

True, across Europe, even in corporate boardrooms, there remains an unwillingness to go to the US extreme of "perform or perish" Politicians of all stripes are committed to the cradle to grave welfare state, no mater its expense and debilitating effects on the economy. Lafontaine's agenda is a move backwards, as if the Continent's tentative moves on the road to a competitive market economy, beyond the welfare state, have reached a cul de sac for Europe.

Let there be no doubt: Lafontaine runs Germany, not Chancellor Schroeder. Schroeder is a provincial politician who was used by the Social Democrats used as the safe face for their new/old approach. Lacking convictions, he could be everything to everybody from new left to center with any socialist taint concealed by the industrialist-advisors who lent Schroeder a Blairite and Clintonian veneer. With the elections over, Schroeder disappeared and the Social Democrat party leader and parliamentary leader, Lafontaine, took over. Soon Schroeder will be kissing babies while Lafontaine sets the agenda and changes the world.