Germans may be celebrating the downfall of their conservative chancellor, but the leftist wind blowing across Europe is not all that refreshing.
With three months to go before the boldest and riskiest experiment in the history of the European Union - the launch of a common currency called the euro - the continent is becoming dominated by social-spending governments least capable of weathering the global financial storm.Gerhard Schroeder's election victory over Helmut Kohl, which ended the veteran chancellor's 16 years in office, added Germany to the center-left roster headed by Britain, France and Italy.
It also robbed the 15-nation EU of a leader regarded as the prime mover toward European integration. Most European analysts agree that without Kohl to steer his bickering EU colleagues through the perilous waters of EMU - Economic and Monetary Union - they will give up the dream of a United States of Europe and revert to narrow nationalist agendas as soon as times turn bad.
And bad is what's expected.
While Germans were voting Sunday, EU finance ministers and central bank governors met for the last time in Vienna before the euro launch scheduled for Jan. 1, 1999. And they finally admitted what everyone feared but never recognized: that European economies face a sharp downturn because of the financial turmoil in Asia and Russia.
Italy gave the gloomiest economic forecast, slashing its projected growth rate for this year from 2.5 percent to 1.8 percent. And the 1999 growth forecast for all 15 EU nations was trimmed from 3 percent to 2.5 percent.
Only 11 of the 15 are in the euro zone. Greece failed to meet the criteria for joining, and Britain, Denmark and Sweden are waiting to see how the euro performs before they join. But some of the other EU nations that just squeaked by the entry requirements - low inflation and interest rates, a small deficit and declining public debt - may no longer be able to meet them.
If they fail to keep their deficits under the 3 percent of GDP required of euro members, they would be heavily fined under the German-inspired Stability Pact designed to keep them from overspending.
None of Europe's center-left governments has devised an effective strategy to lick their common problem of overburdened welfare spending and double-digit unemployment. And, although their leaders profess to be free-marketers aligned with what Schroeder calls the "New Center," they are still subject to pressures from the left.
In Britain over the weekend, leftists won four of six seats on the Labor Party's National Executive Committee that are chosen by rank-and-file members. Prime Minister Tony Blair's supporters still control the 32-member body, but it was seen as his first setback since Labor ousted the Conservative Party in a landslide last year.
Blair has made no secret of the fact that he would like to replace Kohl as the EU's unofficial guru. But he is too young and stands no chance as long as Britain shuns the euro. France is too preoccupied with "cohabitation" between conservative President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. And Italy's economy is too weak to put it in the running.
It will be Schroeder, who is less than enthusiastic about replacing the deutschemark with the euro and following NATO's example by expanding EU membership into eastern Europe, occupying the union's rotating presidency during the critical period when the euro is launched and the whole question of EU expansion comes to a head.
The election victory of a democratic opposition in Slovakia has added that country to the list of nations clamoring to join Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as the favored applicants for EU expansion. But it remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, one of Europe's last remaining autocrats, accepts the result.