Backlash as Germans do a double take on Europe: Steve Crawshaw in Bonn writes that Chancellor Kohl can no longer take German enthusiasm for Europe for granted

Click to follow
LONG, long ago - in 1989, at the time of the last European elections - German enthusiasm for Europe seemed to know no bounds. Then, in quick succession, came German unity and the Treaty of Maastricht. Suddenly, attitudes changed. As one headline suggested this week, summarising the current mood: 'Steady on, Europe]' Even Helmut Kohl, the greatest Euro-enthusiast of all, has had to make tactical retreats.

Partly, the German backlash has been because of the new economic pressures created by unification, and the enormous sums that have poured east. Partly, even as Germany was preparing to walk down the Maastricht aisle, there was a sudden realisation that nobody in Germany had ever really discussed the problems that European marriage might bring.

The debate in Germany only began after the Maastricht treaty was agreed in December 1991, and, above all, in the final months before ratification last year. A court challenge to the legality of Maastricht, led by Manfred Brunner, a former senior official at the European Commission, caused serious embarrassment in Bonn. Eventually, the judges rejected most of Mr Brunner's objections, and thus allowed the signing to go ahead. But not without some painful moments for Chancellor Kohl.

Mr Brunner was pelted with eggs and tomatoes when he and a fellow Europhobe, the far-right Austrian politician Jorg Haider, brought their message to Bonn this week. Elsewhere, however - especially in Bavaria - he has been well received. His anti-Maastricht party may not gain many votes next week, but his message strikes a chord.

Germany's biggest-selling daily, Bild - a slightly tamer version of the Sun - regularly highlights Germany's giant contribution to the EU budget. In discussing the European Union, voters often refer to the high costs of German unity, and then ask: 'Can you expect us to pay for Europe, as well?' In addition, there are fears for the fate of the mark, whose status is regarded as near-divine.

As a result, the Chancellor and his colleagues have been forced on to the defensive. Mr Kohl stands by his European convictions, including the commitment to a single currency. But he is no longer able to take European enthusiasm for granted.

None of which may be such bad news, in the long run, for European integration. The ruling Christian Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats share a belief in the need for a strong Europe. But they now know they have to explain what Europe means, instead of taking support for granted. The right-wing populists (Germany's anti-Europeans are almost exclusively on the nationalist right) must be argued down, instead of being ignored.

Whether or not the Social Democrats come to power in parliamentary elections in October, German policy seems set to remain on more or less the same course. Bonn has liaised closely with Paris on European policy in the 12 months to come, when Germany and then France will hold the EU presidency. This means, on the one hand, consolidating structural changes, and, on the other, opening the EU up to the east: in other words, not deepening instead of widening, but deepening and widening.

Euro-scepticism is now real. A recent opinion poll showed that two thirds of Germans reject the idea of a federal European state - almost the same number as in Britain. But a crucial difference is that Germans still believe that the EU matters. Some 62 per cent of Germans say they will vote next week - substantially more than in the Euro-lethargic UK.