Naked emperor greets young pretender

Tony Blair's visit comes when the German Chancellor's credibility is in shreds, writes Imre Karacs in Bonn

The moment Helmut Kohl had long dreamed of is approaching. Tomorrow, the last of the continent's Old Guard plays host to a British prime minister unburdened by a visceral fear of Europe, the first such specimen to alight in Bonn during the Chancellor's 15-year reign.

Theirs will be a meeting to savour, even if the symbolism of it all may not rub off on Mr Kohl the way he had hoped. When Tony Blair swept to victory last month, the Chancellor perceived a defeat for Euro-scepticism and, by extension, a triumph of his own creed.

But his ever more strident domestic opposition is deciphering a different writing on the wall: "In England and France the policy you have been pursuing for years has failed," claimed Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democrat leader, at yesterday's stormy session of the Bundestag.

The German left naturally has an ideological axe to grind, but the feeling that Mr Kohl's European vision is a gross distortion of reality breaches political divides. Was it not, after all, the reactionary Bundesbank allied with conservative MPs that thwarted the gold theft of the century?

The misjudged attempt to syphon off the Bundesbank's gold for the sake of monetary union has torn Mr Kohl's credibility to shreds, not just among the banking fraternity, but also among ordinary Germans. The self-crowned emperor of Europe was caught with no clothes on, and however he dresses up now, he will henceforth always seem naked.

In yesterday's parliamentary debate, provoked by an opposition motion of no confidence in the Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, the Chancellor tried without conviction to rekindle the old flame: "We need the single European currency," Mr Kohl declared. "It is the basic precondition for peace and freedom and for building the common European house ... The federal government, my coalition, and above all myself, will do everything - everything - to ensure that the time-table and the criteria are adhered to."

Everything, including cooking the books, Italian-style, the cynics muttered.

The massed ranks of government MPs - united for the day - managed to see off the motion with 17 votes to spare, but they have yet to demonstrate that they can agree on anything else. The budget for this year and next has a huge hole because the squabbling coalition parties are unable to unite behind an alternative source of revenue.

In the resulting deadlock, which could still bring Mr Kohl down 15 months before the scheduled elections, Germany's effort to meet the Maastricht criteria goes begging. "Three point nought is three point nought," chants the Finance Minister, but three point five it is going to be, according to all the experts.

That would not be such a big problem, had Mr Kohl not locked the rest of Europe into the 3 per cent cage. The German government's posturing now smacks, according to Mr Lafontaine, of "cynicism towards the other EU member states".

Basking in the undying hatred of Italy and the other countries of the "Club Med" for opposing their applications, Mr Kohl has now been confronted unexpectedly with a French government that may no longer play ball. He tried to make light of it yesterday, declaring that "we should not concern ourselves so much with what other member states are doing to qualify for the [Maastricht] criteria". "Political developments in the neighbourhood should not give rise to speculation whether they are still on course for EMU," he added.

But the awkward "neighbourhood" will limit Germany's room for manoeuvre and, conversely, create opportunities for the new British government. Tomorrow's first official meeting between the ancien regimeand New Labour, in conjunction with the fresh winds blowing from Paris, is seen in Germany as a turning point in the continental power game.

Mr Blair comes to Bonn staking a claim for a place in the top rung of European politics; a niche in the triangle that London hopes will replace the Franco-German axis. Despite the lukewarm noises emanating from Bonn, the German government has been impressed with the Blair team's straight batting in Europe, and appears to relish the chance of working with or against Mr Blair, rather than his unfathomable predecessor.

For the moment, Anglo-German acrimony will lie buried. The British government has already stated that it will not obstruct the conclusion of the Inter-governmental Conference, and has laid all its cards on the table. Nevertheless, the differences will be plain to see. Mr Kohl will not enjoy being seen with an equal a generation his junior. The impression that a patriarch well past the age of natural retirement will be meeting the young pretender will be hard to avoid.

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