Get used to the meddling Germans

You ain't seen nothing. In the new Europe, everyone's business will be everyone else's
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The Independent Culture
HURRICANE OSKAR has come and gone, but there is little evidence that the damage it inflicted on the British public has met with particular sympathy or even attention in the "near abroad" - that is, continental Europe. Germans, for one, are too busy figuring out what Oskar Lafontaine, Oskar the Ominous, is up to at home never mind his exploits beyond.

The lean and hungry man from Saarbrucken, who has found being German finance minister an unorthodox route to stardom, seems about as deft at diplomacy as Lady Macbeth would have been at nursing. But while it may be alright to barge forward within your own family in the Lafontaine fashion, we used to be more circumspect when our neighbour's turf was involved.

Not so any more. Why, members of the German government last week not only rubbed a couple of natural allies in Westminster up the wrong way, they were also, so it would appear, totally oblivious of their own head of state travelling to the sceptr'd isle at the same time - the first state visit to the United Kingdom by a German president in 11 years. No tacit agreement seems to have been in place beforehand to give their own president a bit of a breathing space for the short duration of his trip to Britain.

Lafontaine's interventions and the subsequent communique at the Franco- German summit, combined with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's ruminations a day later ("I must stress that the finance minister has the backing of the government") made predictably sure that this particular state visit was practically dead on arrival. Maybe that is just as well. Maybe that's the way these rituals will go in the ever-closer Europe we are building. Where is the sovereignty that used to lend meaning to the stately act of ceremonial exchanges of this kind?

Maybe what I called the obliviousness of the German government to their own country's presidential schedule was no more than an honest comment by the powers-that-be about the true nature of our relations while the brave new Europe is emerging into full view. For we no longer treat each other as countries entitled to the diplomacy of kid- gloves and closed doors. We can't afford to.

In fact, the Amsterdam Treaty we all signed up to entails a complete departure from the old world of international relations, the "mind-your- own-business" culture resonant with assurances that we would not interfere in the internal affairs of another country (that principle is fast being eroded where human rights is concerned, and rightly so).

That, to me, is the real story behind the Lafontaine brouhaha of the last few weeks. We do mind each other's business all the time now, perish the thought. We intervene constantly in the affairs of our neighbours, it has become the divine right of European politics. It's all in the family. So, perhaps, we might as well stop getting so het up about it and look the unpleasant truth squarely in the face. When you forge a common currency it is natural to think, for example, that the policies of Italy or Belgium become too important for everyone's budgetary concerns to be left to the Italians or Belgians alone.

It was Germany that first brought this state of affairs to Europe-wide attention when, under Helmut Kohl's stewardship, it drove the EU to distraction with its insistence on an absolutist definition of monetary stability as a prerequisite to giving up the vaunted Deutschmark for the Euro.

The fact that the new government seems to have moved dramatically away from this priority, paying more attention instead to job creation policies and a (hoped for) more politically amenable European Central Bank does not alter the nature of the game. Get set and get on people's nerves. We are all in one boat now, and berating laggards, not to mention governments that, with their veto, want to stop the rest of the EU from integrating as it pleases has become the new rule by which we play in the Premier League of neo-interventionism.

You ain't seen nothing yet. In the new Europe everyone's business will be everyone else's. This must be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for an island people proudly independent for over 900 years. All we can hope for is that Europeans, while they are building a culture of constant encroachment on each other's sensitivities, do not lose their sportsmanship into the bargain. That, I am sure, is easier said than done. It would be a disaster if, by getting ever closer, we ultimately end up being too close for comfort. The Lafontaine episode makes me wonder.

Thomas Kielinger is the UK correspondent for `Die Welt'