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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Italy row pays dividends for Schroeder

By Ray Furlong
BBC Berlin correspondent

There's been only one story in Germany this week: Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's holiday plans.

But while some dismiss it as "summer theatre", the affair surrounding Mr Schroeder's decision to cancel his vacation in Italy after a junior Italian minister insulted German tourists shows once again his sharp political instinct.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, right, with Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli
Schroeder may have rediscovered his popular touch
Opinion polls show 66% of Germans back him. Crucially, he has also won over Bild, this country's best-selling newspaper, which greeted the news with the headline: "Basta! Chancellor blows the whistle on Italy."

Other senior figures in his Social Democratic Party (SPD) have followed suit, also cancelling their holidays in Italy.

"Gut-feeling and Bild are often Mr Schroeder's most effective foreign policy advisors,"' wrote Sueddeutsche Zeitung this week.

"The Chancellor's initial reaction: that he would consider not going to Italy, was a self-initiated political instrumentation of his private life."

It might well be there's now a little bit of sympathy again
Ulrike Guerot
German Council of Foreign Relations
One newspaper has even accused him of using the issue as he did last year's floods, as a life-line to restore tarnished popularity.

Since winning re-election last year, Mr Schroeder has been on the defensive.

The economy is on the brink of recession, more than 4.5 million people are unemployed, and the government has seemed rudderless.

His plans for reforms met with strong opposition within his party, and there was also conflict with the unions.

This row is not decisive. The most decisive thing is the economy
Professor Hajo Funke
Berlin's Free University
"The strikes and the state of the economy were very damaging for the government.

"It might well be there's now a little bit of sympathy again," says Ulrike Guerot from the German Council of Foreign Relations.

"But it can disappear in the next two or three weeks, with unemployment still high and reforms unresolved," she adds.

'Partial triumphs'

Professor Hajo Funke, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, agrees.

"This row is not decisive. The most decisive thing is the economy."

Mr Schroeder may also have won some popularity with his announcement of tax cuts last month.

And the recent collapse of the east German steel industry and car manufacturing strike organised by IG Metall, this country's biggest industrial union, was another victory for the Chancellor.

But these are partial triumphs. Unemployment is still expected to reach five million in the winter.

Strikers
Victory over strikers was another plus for the chancellor
The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has also accused Mr Schroeder of populism in his handling of the row with Italy.

Party grandee Wolfgang Schaeuble described it as "completely over-the-top, fatuous, and artfully agitated."

But unfortunately for the CDU, it finds itself sailing against the wind.

Those opinion polls find approval for Mr Schroeder's decision even higher among CDU supporters than among SPD voters.

And Bild newspaper at least is still pushing the story. Friday's front page featured topless models holding a mock beach party outside the Italian embassy.

The message for the ambassador was clear: German tourists are not "loud, pot-bellied and arrogant," as suggested - but "beautiful, sexy and charming."


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