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Vol 3, No 4
29 January 2001
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UK Press Review Charmingly Controversial
The UK press succumbs to the allure of a former revolutionary
Oliver Craske

At face value, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer should perfectly fit the profile of tabloid enemy number one: dodgy past, proselytiser for Euro-federalism and German to boot. Yet even our cynical British newspapers couldn't deny a soft spot for him this week.

Of late, Fischer has been in the news for local difficulty regarding his radical past. The publication of a photograph of him attacking a policeman in 1973 and his appearance in court as a witness at the murder trial of an old associate, Hans-Joachim Klein, have been uncomfortable experiences. All of this has served to highlight how far the 1968 generation has come in order to achieve power now. Fischer has dodged the flak pretty well so far.

Fischer was in Britain on Wednesday 24 January to deliver a speech to the German-British Forum. He was there to accept the forum's annual prize, which he had been awarded for his infamous speech in Berlin last year. In this speech he called for the European Union to move toward a federal structure, a directly elected Commission president and a bicameral European Parliament. This speech had created a real stir in the Eurosceptic British press, both tabloid and broadsheet.

In advance of Mr Fischer's visit, the British government had a quiet word with its counterparts in Berlin to request that their guest bear in mind British sensitivities on matters European. One British government source told The Daily Telegraph that, "you do not have to be a genius to see the problem."

Warm welcomes, dubious motives

The Independent (24 January) issued a warm welcome, with an interview and leading article devoted to Fischer. "If the visit of the charmingly controversial Mr Fischer prompts more thinking here about Europe, then he will have more than earned his prize."

Surprisingly, The Daily Telegraph also embraced the former revolutionary: "Welcome, Joschka Fisher," it proclaimed in a leading article on 23 January. But one need not be a genius to suspect that this grand gesture on the part of the Eurosceptic and pro-Conservative Telegraph (nickname the Torygraph) may have had an ulterior motive.

Noting that the Labour Government "would not welcome its visitor stirring the waters on this issue in what could well be the run-up to a national poll," The Daily Telegraph nobly proclaimed: "The future of our continent is more important than short-term electoral advantage. We hope that he speaks as boldly as he did in Berlin."

Of course. So that an unholy stink is kicked up in the press, to the discomfort of a Labour government seeking to bury the European question until after the election?

The German f-word

Fischer judged his British audience well, displaying his confidence and political awareness by depicting himself with irony as "the most dangerous man in Europe," describing federalism as "the German f-word," and even quoting Margaret Thatcher from 1975, when long before she invented her anti-European persona, she admitted the need for major nations to pool their sovereignty in the common interest. (This will make her blood boil today.)

He said that he sees some British newspaper coverage of Europe as surreal comedy. As The Independent (24 January) put it: "'I'm a great fan of Monty Python,' is his gloss on tabloid reports."

While he made clear that he favours deeper integration, he also remembered to bring up the European themes that Labour felt it safer to mention, enlargement and reform: "EU enlargement, he argued, was vital to avoid an east-west split and the prospect of another war. Four wars in Yugoslavia had shown the dangers." (The Guardian, 25 January)

On democratic reform for the EU, he knew there was some common ground with Britain, which favours the representation of national parliaments in a new Senate-style second chamber for the European Parliament.

Unexpected reactions

Reactions to the speech did not follow expectations. Ewen MacAskill in The Guardian (25 January) said Fischer had "refused to water down his proposals for a federal Europe" and described it as "one of the most pro-European speeches made on British soil by a foreign leader." An accompanying piece by John Hooper described Fischer as "perhaps the most controversial politician in the European Union."

Meanwhile the Financial Times (24 January), the most pro-euro of the broadsheets, nevertheless reported that in his speech Fischer had "ridiculed British Eurosceptics as he made a passionate call for further European Union integration."

On the other hand, The Times, although owned by the Eurosceptic Rupert Murdoch, felt he had "toned down the integrationist rhetoric that had been expected in his speech," which "came as a relief to British officials." ("Fischer soothes fears of British Eurosceptics," 25 January)

The nation's darling

In general Fischer received positive reports from a press that has developed a soft spot for him, despite his controversial past and EU proposals that few in Britain could make. They certainly appreciate his directness and charisma.

Of course this only reflects the popular perception of Fischer in Germany itself. In a profile, The Economist (20 January) described how he had quickly become "the nation's darling" after he had been appointed Foreign Minister in 1998. After recent criticism, Fischer's reputation has taken a slight dent, but he remains very popular. "Pollsters say that over three-quarters of Germans, and two-thirds of opposition voters, want Mr Fischer to stay," remarked The Economist.

Chancellor Schröder has supported Fischer throughout his recent troubles. The Foreign Minister's minor popularity slide has meant that he is now only the second most popular politician in Germany: Schröder will shed no tears over this fact since the new number one is the Chancellor himself.

Would we love him if he were British?

It's interesting to speculate how the British press might have reacted to the recent revelations about him had he been a British government minister: one suspects that once the tabloids had got hold of the photograph of a minister-to-be striking a policeman he would have been headed in the same direction as Peter Mandelson was this week: likely into political oblivion.

But Michael White, political editor of The Guardian took a different view (23 January). He listed the radical backgrounds of a host of British ministers past and present - including the current education minister in the Northern Ireland executive, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, "one of Europe's most formidable and successful terrorists" who is now apparently a regular guest on David Frost's TV show sofa. Not only have such politicians found it possible to move on successfully from those former days, but claimed White, those "historical struggles have made them more mature politicians."

Oliver Craske, 26 January 2001

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