The Incredible Shrinking Chancellor

Gerhard Schröders trip to Versailles last week to celebrate the 40 th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty which ended for all time the historic Franco/German enmity and to pose jointly with President Chirac in opposition to a US-led invasion of Iraq, allowed him to appear to be another in an impressive line of powerful post-war German chancellors. But like the sight lines in Versailles Hall of Mirrors, the image of a powerful German Chancellor is an illusion.

Chancellor Schröder knows this. Back home, he is the subject of satirical songs and finds himself engaged in frivolous lawsuits about whether he dyes his hair or spends enough time with his wife. More importantly, his governments hesitance in addressing the countrys deep problems with its health care system, pensions, and the labor market creates a sense of political paralysis. Germany seems mired in passivity, as it did in the final years of Helmut Kohls long rule. But Schröder was elected because he promised to be more dynamic than Kohl.

What went wrong? Schröders failures are less connected with his personal qualities and politics than is often assumed. Despite the seeming power of Germanys postwar Chancellors, the countrys political system can only be administered; governance in the sense of addressing fundamental problems by enacting far-reaching reforms is usually impossible. As Germany struggles to restore economic growth this constitutionally mandated debility is increasingly obvious.

The problem stems from the greater influence that ruling parties and parliamentary factions in Germany have relative to their counterparts in, say, Great Britain or France. If a chancellor is no longer popular Schröders case today he loses leverage over his parliamentary majority. Schröder won approval for deploying German armed forces to Afghanistan only by attaching the issue to a vote of confidence in his government. Such a stratagem is possible only in connection with foreign policy matters, and, unlike in Britain, it is the exception, not the rule.