Leading Article: Don't count on splitting the Paris-Bonn axis

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WITH THE election of Gerhard Schroder as Chancellor of Germany, Europe's three biggest countries are now led by Social Democrat parties - a fact which Labour ministers have not been slow to point out. A new triangle of power, with Lionel Jospin in Paris, Schroder in Berlin and Blair in London, is ready to develop. Furthermore, as in the words of the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, there is a chance of detaching Germany from such a close alliance with France and bringing it into a closer relationship with Britain.

Well, hold on a minute. The rejection of Chancellor Kohl after 16 years in power undoubtedly makes a difference. So does his replacement by a Social Democrat Party-led coalition. Germany is now, like Britain and France, headed by a politician who has virtually no direct memory of the Second World War. Their leaders are also all politicians essentially intent on replacing the previous hegemony of conservatism with a modernised, liberal-left politics that absorbs all the lessons of Thatcherism but softens them with kinder words.

But there the similarity ends. Blair took over a Britain largely Thatcherised but tired of her stridency and wearied by the fractions of a government that had stayed in power too long. Jospin and now Schroder lead governments where unemployment is high, recession a recent memory and moves towards a full, free market economy barely started.

For them, and their countries, the aim is still a delicate balancing act between the demands to ease the pain of change with the requirement to promote it. The consensus politics of Europe, with their awkwardly- balanced systems of presidential and parliamentary structures, and varying forms of proportional representation, may seem cumbersome to the British. .

In this process, a change of government in Bonn - soon to be Berlin - is welcome. Whether one approved of Chancellor Kohl or not, he had clearly run out of steam in moving Germany along the path of change. The public were tired of him, as the French public were of his contemporary, Mitterand, and the British of Mrs Thatcher. A great opportunist, Kohl had seemed to have outlived his two great achievements of reunification and European monetary union.

His successor will probably prove less influenced by the former and less determined on the latter. The pace of European integration will slow without Kohl. So will the pressure for enlargement and foreign interventions through NATO or a European foreign policy.

That may well make the new Germany a little less attractive to the France of President Chirac (though not necessarily as much to Prime Minister Jospin) and more attractive to London. But it would be quite wrong to think in terms of a new triangle, let alone of a new Anglo-Saxon axis. If Germany does prove more cautious on integration it will be largely because it is no longer willing to pay the cost of being Europe's paymaster. That may suit us on federalism but not on enlargement. A more introverted Germany will also still need to base itself on the Bonn-Paris alliance, even more so as the world economic recession bites. If France and Germany, and most of the rest of Europe for that matter, share common problems of market change, still more do they share common economic prospects. The threats to the euro- launch will keep Paris and Bonn more than fully occupied, without worrying about relations with a Britain that is not a party to the whole enterprise.

The change in government is welcome for all sorts of reasons to Tony Blair. But it does not change much, still less remove, the urgent need for the British to throw themselves into the task of reshaping a Europe of monetary union.