Bonn takes the helm amid a sea of troubles: What had been billed as the perfect presidency for Europe could hardly have begun in a more inauspicious manner, write Andrew Marshall and Steve Crawshaw in Bonn

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The Independent Online
IT WAS planned to be the perfect presidency. All efficiency, dynamism, and European harmony. In practice, it could hardly have got off to a worse start. The six-month German presidency of the European Union, which begins today, opens under the kind of cloud that even have dismayed the British.

On the one hand, there is the failure to agree at Corfu last week on a successor to Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission. That has caused a mini- crisis, and a desperate scrambling around for other candidates - a problem that must at least partly be laid at Germany's own door. Despite the apparently obvious message of the eleven-to-one vote, most German commentators and many officials acknowledge that the presentation of Jean-Luc Dehaene's candidacy as a fait accompli was far from tactful, in a Europe where fears of Franco-German dominance are real.

Then the controversy over the import ban on British beef, because of the alleged dangers of mad cow disease, has come to a head this week. The European Commission has emphasised that if the announced import ban is introduced, Germany could find itself in the European Court in Luxembourg and Bonn needs the threat of being hauled before the court in Luxembourg like a hole in the European head.

Meanwhile, the caravan moves on. Mr Kinkel, in outlining the presidency to the German parliament this week, emphasised, as ever, the need for a 'joint future of European nations'. Germany's presidency is, in Mr Kinkel's words, 'shoulder to shoulder' with the French, to whom the Germans hand over the baton.

Joint planning with France and, to a lesser extent, with Spain, which takes over the presidency in mid-1995, is intended to ensure a smooth run for the presidency, giving enough time to look at medium and long-term goals. An important feature of this year's and next year's presidencies is the planning for an inter-governmental conference in 1996, which will determine how modest or ambitious the structural changes to the EU will be.

France and Germany may launch a joint initiative later this year on institutional reform. But the truth is that their hands are tied by the French Presidential election next year. Nor is there any great consensus about what should emerge from the intergovernmental conference, because it is still uncertain how far that will have to take account of new members from Central and Eastern Europe.

The opening up to the east is enormously important for Bonn, as any instability there would directly affect Germany itself. In this respect, the French and the Germans scarcely have a common agenda. France is wary of the eastward drift of the Union, leaving France somewhere on the western edge. Mr Kinkel, by contrast, talked this week of an EU which 'belongs to the Baltic, as much as to the Mediterranean'.

While Britain is keener on widening and France is keener on deepening, Germany repeatedly insists on the need for 'widening and deepening'. It seems unlikely that the next six months will see anything substantially new in terms of moves towards eastern Europe, but rather the consolidation of existing initiatives.

In other fields, the German presidency is also unlikely to break any moulds.

It wants progress on co-operation on internal affairs, like immigration and asylum policy and police matters, but mainly on issues that are already in train. And Bonn says it wants joblessness at the top of the agenda, but has few concrete proposals.

Sometimes, Germany's Euro- enthusiastic eyes seem bigger than its political stomach. Given the reduced enthusiasm of German citizens for all things European, even Mr Kinkel now acknowledges that it is necessary to 'take our citizens with us'. Voter-friendly talk of tackling unemployment and of reducing international crime is now at least as high on the official agenda as are the more abstract concepts of European unity. Chancellor Kohl still dreams of a single European currency. But the single currency is not much talked about, these days.

Meanwhile, despite all the grand talk of new agendas, the truth may be more prosaic: that presidencies continue in the direction that has been collectively determined. Germany will in any case be distracted by other pressing matters, for most of its presidency. The country has nationwide elections in October, so that all but the last few weeks of the presidency will thus take place in the heat of an election campaign.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 19

Westernising the east, page 19