Kohl blinded by his visions: After 10 years in power the Chancellor is finding that the achievement of one dream is destroying another, writes John Eisenhammer in Bonn

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The Independent Online
HELMUT Kohl had imagined a rather different sort of occasion to mark his 10 years as Chancellor. It should have been a moment of triumph, a ringing celebration of two extraordinary achievements: the statesman as the unification Chancellor, and as one of the main architects, if not the architect, of European union.

Instead, his 10th anniversary on 1 October will find a Chancellor who no longer dares set an impromptu foot in the streets of eastern Germany, so powerful are the feelings of frustration, resentment and disillusionment there. And it will find a Chancellor desperately looking for ways to prevent his European achievements, which not long ago seemed so tantalisingly near to completion, from crashing down around him.

As talk of a multi-tier European future grew last week, he showed no sign of abandoning his vision of integration despite an assertion by a leading compatriot - the Bundesbank central council member, Wilhelm Noelling - that Maastricht was dead and buried. The Chancellor told parliament that Europe still had to grasp the opportunity the Maastricht treaty offered, or else 'the Community will be thrown back by several years'.

Helmut Kohl repeats tirelessly that German unification and European union are two sides of the same coin. He meant it as a statement of reassurance to those Community partners worried about the dominance of a mighty, united Germany. It is only in the past few weeks that Mr Kohl has suddenly realised just how true that catchphrase is, but in a different, negative sense. For it is the grave problems caused by unification - above all the need to maintain high interest rates - that have largely contributed to the European monetary crisis. The completion of German unification, so beset with difficulties, risks damaging, if not ruining, the Chancellor's other grand dream, of a united states of Europe.

In the past, such moments have brought out the best in the 62-year-old Chancellor. Mr Kohl is not a political thinker, but a political fighter, someone who discovers leadership qualities when his back is against the wall. On Europe, he is fighting for one of the few political ideals in which he passionately believes. And he is doing so in exactly the same way as he has always waged his toughest political battles, ever since he started out as a member of the Rhineland-Palatinate district organisation of the Christian Democratic party in 1953.

The architecture of Mr Kohl's politics is founded on personal contacts. The telephone lines between the chancellery and Number 10, and to the Elysee Palace, have been throbbing in the past few days as he turns constantly to his friends, John and Francois.

It was the same during the dash for unification when, clad in his favourite baggy cardigan, Mr Kohl sat in the Caucasus with Mikhail Gorbachev, discussing how to keep a united Germany in Nato. They could have been two local councillors haggling over where to put the new village swimming pool. But Mr Kohl runs Germany as if this nation of 80 million people were city hall. He does not believe in a political apparatus, but in people. The cabinet in Bonn has almost ceased to be an instrument of policy-making under him. This is a huge change from the time of his predecessor, Helmut Schmidt, who took pride in winning over ministers in open intellectual debate. Mr Kohl hates nothing more, operating exclusively in small circles of trusted advisers and friends, drawing on a network of contacts.

This obsession with binding people to him by favours has done much over the past 10 years to give Bonn politics its increasingly Byzantine air. It is a method Mr Kohl learned and perfected during his march through the ranks of the CDU. He has been national chairman of the party for 19 years, time enough to forge a power base so strong that he has survived countless attempted party coups, and dizzying slumps in his popularity.

Helmut Kohl has, by all accounts, an extraordinary memory for people and personal details; for those who have done him a good turn, and those who have hindered his progress. The latter, should they emerge as serious rivals, have been dealt with mercilessly. The latest victim was Wolfgang Schauble, not long ago referred to as Mr Kohl's 'crown prince'. Mr Schauble has been in a wheelchair since an assassination attempt in 1990 left him paralysed from the waist down. On entering the room for Mr Schauble's 50th birthday party earlier this week, Mr Kohl said: 'Wolfgang, you may stay seated.'

But such an obsession with preserving broad-based party support has exacted a high price in leadership terms. People find it difficult to identify clearly what Mr Kohl stands for, and that is precisely how he wants it. 'To be an integrator, you must have a low profile,' he lectures his aides, finishing off with one of his favourite sayings: 'Too many hounds and the hare is dead.'

Helmut Kohl always tries to wait until the last minute before committing himself to something. This was true in the debate over whether Bonn or Berlin should be the united Germany's seat of government. He opted for Berlin only when he sensed that the Bonn cause was truly lost.

Unification remains the great exception. Helmut Kohl had no more foreseen it than anyone else. Before 1989 he thought he would go into the history books as someone who had helped end 'Euro-sclerosis'. But he had remained attached to the idea of German unity long after others had given up on it, and so was able to grab the opportunity.

Certain things do not change, however, and one of these was Mr Kohl's distaste for detail. At the time, it was probably a great strength, for the Chancellor forced Germany into a rush for unity which secured the prize; but he ignored warnings about errors committed or problems stored up. Now those problems appear to be everywhere, and massive. But Mr Kohl's burst of leadership has fizzled out. He has retreated to his old cautious self, provoking a degree of political paralysis that, in the face of an increasingly strained economic and social situation, has fomented an unprecedented malaise among Germans.

If there is an issue that can draw Chancellor Kohl out of his natural caution, it could be Europe. Like unification, it is one of the few things for which the hesitant party power-broker is prepared to take risks.

He will need all his courage to do so, for German public opinion has swung dramatically over the past two years away from its uncritical support for ever more European integration towards downright scepticism. When it comes to giving up the Deutschmark for a common currency, the mood is one of overwhelming hostility.

Mr Kohl is suffering from the success of his own policies, for unification has changed western German attitudes. A sense of 'we are somebody again' has replaced the pre-unity code of conduct of West Germany, which emphasised modesty, submissiveness and a rejection of anything smacking of nationalism. Now there is a new confidence to preserve and defend what is German, and a new reluctance to part with what is regarded to be superior.

As he stands contemplating the fork in the road ahead, Helmut Kohl will be thinking there must be easier ways of celebrating 10 glorious years.

(Photographs omitted)

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