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Last Updated: Monday, 25 April 2005, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Germany's Fischer under fire
By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

He has always been the darling of the German media.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer
Mr Fischer admitted that "mistakes were made" at his ministry

And the television cameras were trained on German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer on Monday as he gave evidence to a special parliamentary commission in Berlin.

The inquiry was set up to investigate a visa scandal which has been gathering momentum over the last few months.

Mr Fischer is accused of presiding over a visa regime from 2000 which allowed

thousands of people from Ukraine and other east European countries to enter Germany under false pretences. In some cases, it is claimed, they were supported by criminal gangs.

'Transparency needed'

Opposition conservative MPs have called for Mr Fischer's resignation, claiming that under his watch, criminals and women forced into prostitution travelled to Germany and worked in the country.

"Joschka Fischer personally signed that order, and if the inquiry proves that he knew about the massive abuse of Schengen visas in the embassies of Kiev, Moscow, Pristina and other capitals in eastern and central Europe, then he has to step down, " said Andreas Schockenhoff, a Christian Democrat MP.

Mr Fischer's aides hope his media skills will ensure that he performs well
According to foreign ministry officials, Mr Fischer had always wanted to appear before the inquiry as early as possible and the ruling coalition had asked for the proceedings to be televised.

"We need full transparency" one spokesman said, "and we did not like the way different statements were made inside and outside the commission."

Mr Fischer has admitted that "mistakes were made" at the foreign ministry - but that any legal loopholes which existed have long since been closed.

"At the moment I signed the order, it became my order," Mr Fischer said confidently in testimony to the inquiry in Berlin. "I'm responsible for it."

He said he supported "every factual clarification" of the visa issue.

Looking relaxed and in combative mood, Mr Fischer went on to tell the hearing that "I have nothing to hide."

"Let's have a look at the accusations - firstly, that we opened the doors to criminals.

"Crime statistics don't support that... The theory that security was endangered, that the country was flooded with criminals, is simply a propaganda theory of the opposition," he said.

Key election looms

Mr Fischer's aides hope his media skills will ensure that he performs well at the inquiry - especially as he is facing conservative backbench MPs, and not frontbench MPs.

But Mr Fischer, who began his political career as a student activist and street fighter in the 1968 protests, has recently been regarded by many as an arrogant politician who has lost touch with reality.

Mr Fischer used to be the country's most popular politician. But now he has been replaced in the top spot in opinion polls by Christian Wulff, governor of the state of Lower Saxony.

The parliamentary inquiry, set up at the initiative of opposition parties, is intended to find out how widespread the abuse in Germany's visa regulations was.

The panel also wants to know when members of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government, especially Joschka Fischer, a member of the Green party, were aware of any problems and what action ministers took to crack down on the abuse.

The members of the inquiry have already heard evidence from diplomats, legal experts and a former junior foreign minister, Ludger Volmer.

The visa scandal is theatening to overshadow campaigning for the key election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia on 22 May.

Crucial test

According to opinion polls, Chancellor Schroeder's ruling Social Democratic Party is lagging behind the opposition Christian Democrats.

Mr Schroeder has given his full support to Mr Fischer, a close ally. In one recent newspaper interview, Mr Schroeder said "the foreign minister will remain the foreign minister."

While it may be too soon to write off Mr Fischer, it is clear that he will face a crucial test as he appears before the parliamentary inquiry.

It is expected the hearing could last up to 10 hours - a gruelling experience for any politician, however refined their media skills.

SEE ALSO
Germans argue over integration
30 Nov 04 |  Europe

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