A meeting by the Rhine

Steve Crawshaw on shifting Anglo-German anxieties
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The Independent Online
Two weighty conferences followed hard on each other's heels last week. Theoretically, they were unconnected. But the irony of their juxtaposition was hard to miss. On Wednesday, the great and the good gathered in London for a meeting on "Britain and the World" - a meeting that sought to gaze into Britain's tormented soul. The following day, another group of the great and the good descended on the respectable little town of Knigswinter - a kind of Cheltenham on the Rhine - for their annual Anglo-German bash.

Traditionally Knigswinter, just across the river from Bonn (more a state of mind than a geographic location; every other year the meeting is held in Cambridge) has been a place where both sides address their knottiest problems. Usually, Germany is the worried one. Now, however, it is Britain that seeks reassurance. What one speaker at the Knigswinter conference described as "cross-dressing" was suddenly all the rage.

Knigswinter began 45 years ago as a way of bringing the two countries together in difficult times. It sought to build understanding between them and to nurture the still tender shoots of federal German democracy. Knigswinter prospered, even (or especially) when times were hard.

Germany's obsessive fear of what others think of it has long been a wonder to behold. In most countries, "As Others See Us" is merely a subject of mild curiosity; in Germany, it is of crucial importance. At least until now. Since the end of the Cold War, Germany's tendency to look over its shoulder has lessened, just as Britain nervously begins to wonder what the rest of the world thinks of it.

Relations between the two countries may now be better than ever. At Knigswinter, Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, spoke of a "solid marriage, and a very pleasant one at that". This led to much excited specula- tion about political bigamy and a possible mnage trois. Indeed, when he talked of a "triangle" between London, Paris and Bonn, Mr Kinkel seemed to encourage casual bed-swapping.

Choosing a less risqu comparison, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary - who flew in for lunch - talked of changing partners at a dance. He, too, insisted that the differences between Britain and Germany are never so serious that they cannot be resolved. This may be more than just diplomatic hot air. Although the select, consensus-loving group at Knigswinter can hardly be said to represent the whole spectrum of Anglo-German views on Europe, the invitations issued to Norman Lamont and to Alan Sked, the leader of the Euro-hating UK Independence Party, may reflect greater confidence that the sceptics can be tackled head-on instead of being dismissed by the Euro-correct of Knigswinter with a pantomime hiss and with their arguments unheard.

Senior British participants at the conference talked sanguinely of possible monetary union (though not, it was emphasised, in 1999). Equally, the Germans are no longer as positive about Europe as they used to be. One German participant complained of the "hypocrisy in our Sunday-school rhetoric", which failed to acknowledge the reservations of ordinary voters. Indeed, Germany is so keen on imposing its own taboos that debate is, in effect, kept under wraps. As happened with the ratification of Maastricht, it seems likely that there will be a delayed backlash on other European issues, too - whether on the economic price to be paid for extending Europe to the east, or on the implications for Germany of losing the adored Deutschmark.

The two sides are sometimes closer than they can publicly afford to admit. There were heretical whispers around the Knigswinter corridors this weekend that the conference could one day become redundant. Already, one British diplomat noted, "We're now more interested in Knigswinter than the Germans are. That's a difference." If Knigswinter succeeds in doing itself out of a job, then it might be a job well done.