A scandal over lax visa policies that has dogged Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer for weeks has taken on a new twist after reports that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was allegedly fully aware of the issue for years.
Thousands of eastern Europeans made use of the liberalization
Officials believe that Schröder was aware of a 2000 row between Fischer and Interior Minister Otto Schily over the visa issue: Fischer at the time was defending a liberalized visa policy despite warnings that massive abuse was in full swing in eastern European nations.
So far, a parliamentary commission is investigating whether Fischer is responsible for the massive abuse of visas. This involves having allowed thousands of illegal workers and prostitutes into Germany between 2000 and 2003 - most of them from Ukraine.
Officials are investigating when leading politicians became aware of the problem and why they did not react sooner. The inquiry has uncovered that several cabinet ministers failed to react to early warnings about the abuse of visa regulations under which applicants were not subjected to proper checks.
How much did Schröder know?
Now, officials believe that Schröder was informed about massive irregularities as early as 2000, with copies of letters in which the interior minister challenged the visa regulations and the foreign minister defended them. A foreign ministry spokesman denied that Schröder had the letters.
But Ulrich von Klaeden, who represents the opposition conservative Christian Democrats in the parliamentary inquiry commission isn’t willing to let the chancellor off the hook: "I take it that Gerhard Schroeder himself knew about the discrepancies," he said. "A conflict of this magnitude between the foreign and interior ministries can’t possibly have escaped the chancellor’s notice.”
Fischer takes responsibility
Fischer has reluctantly assumed responsibility for the affair. But he has refused to step down.
“I admit that between 2000 and 2002 and did not react fast enough to reports about the abuse of our new visa-issuing policy," he said. "And I should have done more to prevent further irregularities.”
Opponents accuse him of riding out the storm, as he requests more time to prepare for a hearing before the inquiry which could take months. But the Green party's Jerzy Montag who is part of the inquiry commission, says the panel is working as fast as possible: “We’ve already fixed additional dates for inquiry sessions. We want to speed up our work, as it seems in the interest of all to shed more light into the affair. And certainly we are interested in hearing the foreign minister himself as soon as possible.”
Praise for prosecutor
Meanwhile opposition leaders have been praising the man who brought the scandal to light. They are even suggesting a national award of merit for prosecutor Egbert Buelles. He brought a Ukrainian man to trial who was accused trafficking in human cargo a year ago - Buelles blamed the foreign ministry as being responsible for helping human traffickers by facilitating the influx of illegal workers and prostitutes.
The CDU opposition now says the prosecutor acted under enormous pressure when he continued to press claims that government officials were hindering the investigation by dragging their feet over presenting documents and witnesses.