Rifkind's warning words to Germans

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"Here I stand," said Malcolm Rifkind, breaking into German to conclude the lecture with Martin Luther's immortal words. "I can do nothing else."

For once, the audience was inclined to agree, rewarding the speaker with warm applause and not a little laughter, which rose to a crescendo when the chairman expressed his hope to see Mr Rifkind again after the coming elections. There was much discussion afterwards of last boats in the convoy and trains leaving the platform. The consensus was that Britain had missed both.

"A very interesting discussion," said Hermann Berie, a civil servant who had come to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung to hear the British Foreign Secretary's views on Europe. "I didn't think that Mr Rifkind, who is after all a diplomat, would put things so directly."

Was there any chance that British anxieties, so eloquently expressed, might influence German debate? - "None. We have been hearing this for six years."

The Foreign Secretary had been invited to the governing Christian Democrats' think tank to explain the British government's views on Europe to ordinary Germans, although there were not many of those about.

German plans for closer integration in Europe would weaken democracy, Mr Rifkind warned, spelling out Bonn's centralist proposals at the inter- governmental conference (IGC). But for the audience, the battle has already been lost - or won. Britain signed on at Maastricht and the train cannot be stopped.

What Germans wanted to hear about was monetary union, which Mr Rifkind did not cover. And so the questions came flooding in, not about integration, but about Britain's attitude to the euro. It was "very unlikely", he informed them, that Britain would join monetary union in January 1999.

Mr Rifkind was also quizzed about alleged British duplicity in the former Yugoslavia, London's views on an integrated defence structure and, inevitably, bovine spongiform encephalopathy - "I also eat beef," he reassured them.

The assembled ranks may not have been a representative sample of German society, but in their lack of interest in the lofty goals of European integration, they were not all that out of touch with hoi polloi. Poll after poll shows that ordinary Germans either accept the political establishment's arguments in favour of closer integration, or simply do not care.

There was no meeting of minds either between Mr Rifkind and members of the government. "We had a very good discussion with Herr Schauble about federalism," he told reporters. Wolfgang Schauble, the number two in Helmut Kohl's government, thought federalism was a Good Thing, because it had served Germans well. Mr Rifkind insisted federalism in Europe would be a Bad Thing, because it would transfer power from national institutions to a super-national structure. And there they stand.

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