Why Kohl could be Britain's best friend in Europe

The next generation of politicians won't put European unity ahead of German interests, writes Imre Karacs in Bonn
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The Independent Online
HELMUT KOHL should have known better than to "mention ze war". Judging by the chorus of Tory whistles which greeted his now notorious speech, the subject is still far more sensitive than Germans realise. In Britain, at any rate. The rest of Europe saw little to shriek about.

Chancellor Kohl had the temerity to ram the subject of war down the throats of the inhabitants of Louvain, a Belgian town razed by the Kaiser's army in August 1914: but the Belgians chose not to see this as an insult. They even applauded his remark that European integration was "in reality a question of war and peace in the 21st century".

Only in Britain, it seems, was the Chancellor's sinister message - the Panzers are ready to roll unless you accept EMU - correctly decoded and amplified to the level of a major international incident. The press, caught napping when he used exactly the same phrase in a keynote address in October, were battle-ready this time. As the sound of the German war drums wafted across the Channel, the Tory right's rent-a-quotes sprang into action.

"The man is living in the past," noted Teresa Gorman. "[War] would be caused by the megalomania of Herr Kohl and his obsession with a superstate in which Germany is master and the rest his puppets," opined Sir Richard Body, the formerly whipless MP.

But if the Conservatives are so certain of the future - that there is no chance of a war in the next century, other than one launched by Mr Kohl himself - their knowledge about the recent past is somewhat shakier. "I don't think that it is the European Community which has kept the peace in Europe since the Second World War," declared John Redwood. "I think it is Nato and the fact that the main European countries have very different attitudes to the countries of the 1930s." Peace in Europe since 1945? Bosnia, as far as Mr Redwood seems aware, did not happen, or not in Europe at any rate.

Mr Kohl's critics in Britain are right about one thing, though: he is living in the past, hypnotised by memories of a war that nearly destroyed his nation. Every day, as he strolls into the Bundestag, his eyes fall on a series of maps charting the ebb and flow of German history for the past millennium. The frontiers seem perpetually on the move, shifting by as much as 1,000 miles in any direction, each change punctuated by a cataclysmic event that cost millions of lives. The last border change was only six years ago, when the excavators were finally allowed to clear the minefields of Berlin.

That "Germany has had enough of wars", as Karl Lamers, Mr Kohl's close ally puts it, is an understatement. A record 160,000 young men refused military service last year, raising questions about where the Bundeswehr is to find its future recruits. A professional army is out of the question because Germans mistrust professional soldiers.

Despite their horror of the carnage in the Balkans - a region as European as Britain in German geography, if not Mr Redwood's - parliament agonised for four years about sending troops to relieve suffering. Even now, the Bundeswehr contingent in the former Yugoslavia consists almost entirely of medics day-tripping from the Croatian coast into Bosnia. Every time another plane needs to be dispatched, MPs whip themselves into a frenzy over the decision.

The German answer to the ever-present threat of war in the continent is closer European integration. It is a dream nurtured by every post-war leader from Konrad Adenauer onwards, and one that until recently enjoyed almost universal public support. Bonn has never kept secret its ultimate goal: a federal Europe in which the economy, defence and foreign affairs are controlled by a supranational government. Mr Kohl is acutely aware that a united Germany's power is bound to fuel resentment in neighbouring states, and being German he fears that such resentment can give rise to war.

The mighty Bundesbank already, in effect, sets exchange rates across the Community, and the current slowdown in its economy has provided ample illustration that whenever Germany sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold. His solution is to merge the economy with the rest of the continent, pooling sovereignty with the rest of the EU.

It is a vision that is becoming blurred in Germany itself. Mr Kohl, who will be 66 this year, is virtually the last senior politician with memories of the war. Both the fortysomethings in the Christian Democrat bloc who might inherit his mantle and the fiftysomethings on the opposition benches are losing patience with his priorities. There is no immediate danger of right-wing extremism infecting mainstream politics, but "Deutschmark- nationalism" is rising both among the electorate and the establishment. European integration remains a national goal, but no longer at any price.

The Chancellor's stance on Europe, especially monetary union, is dangerously exposed, even within his own cabinet. The opposition Social Democrats are abandoning their unswerving commitment to European integration, and preparing to turn Mr Kohl's policy into an election issue in 1998. Europe may only have two years to lock Germany into a partnership on current terms. If that opportunity is not seized, it may well have to deal with a different kind of Germany, one that matches the caricature of an overbearing disciplinarian. If that happens, we may yet look back on Chancellor Kohl, not as some kind of Hitlerian demon, but the last German leader to approach the rest of Europe with humility.

"Great Britain was the only EU country which reacted so strongly to Chancellor Kohl's speech ... Some of the reactions have missed the point he was trying to make. Mr Kohl pointed out that the policy of European integration is in reality a matter of war and peace in the 21st century. To say this is warmongering is way off the mark. Today, at the end of the 20th century, we Europeans have the chance to strengthen the EU so that in the future it can prevent or stop wars ... We have the chance to organise Europe in such a a way that the 21st century will be the first century of peace on the continent."

Karl Lamers, chairman of Christian Democrat foreign affairs committee and close ally of Helmut Kohl.

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