Is Europe driving Germany up the wall?

After the euphoria of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Germans are now questioning their role as EU paymaster
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The Independent Online
Is Germany getting fed up with Europe? When a diplomat from a big European country recently put this question to me, my instinct was to dismiss it as absurd.

How could Germany be suspected of such restlessness when it has moved heaven and earth since 1945 to merge itself indissolubly with its European allies? Surely Chancellor Helmut Kohl's relentless determination to achieve European monetary and political union is proof that Germany is solidly anchored in Europe?

And yet, and yet. Something is changing in Germany. The European ideal that defined the country's post-war identity and mission, and which did so much to connect the political establishment with public opinion, seems to matter less now to ordinary Germans than at any time since 1945.

One recent survey suggested that only one in three Germans thinks that membership of the European Union is a significant benefit. Polls consistently underline the scepticism of Hans in Hamburg and Franz in Frankfurt about sacrificing the mighty mark for the untried and untested euro, as the planned European single currency has been christened.

There are even cracks in the political elite. Among those who have questioned the wisdom of Mr Kohl's drive for monetary union at all costs are Gerhard Schroder, a senior opposition Social Democrat in Lower Saxony, and Edmund Stoiber, the right-wing premier of Bavaria.

Germans are not becoming anti-European, in the Tory Europhobic sense of harbouring a secret desire to pull their country out of the EU. The public mood, however, has shifted perceptibly since the unification of Germany in 1990.

By bringing together west and east Germans in one country and clearing up the status of Berlin, unification removed important constraints on German foreign policy and on the way Germans look at Europe. They have a stronger sense now of when something is in Germany's interest and when it is not, and when it is not they are more willing to resist.

This point has emerged with particular clarity in the dispute between Germany and the European Commission over subsidies paid to the car-maker Volkswagen by the eastern state of Saxony. The Commission ruled that the payments violated EU rules, but the German government disagreed and is filing a suit against the Commission in the European Court of Justice (the Commission is responding with a counter-suit).

The government's stance has been dictated partly by an awareness that east Germans, already little enthused about the EU, could turn hostile if they suspected that Brussels was denying them money and jobs. For despite hundreds of billions of marks in financial transfers since the fall of the Berlin Wall, east Germans are still the poor relations of their western kinsfolk.

They have strongly supported Saxony's premier, Kurt Biedenkopf, for cutting the deal with Volkswagen, and they have made it plain that they could not care less about EU regulations. As the Potsdam newspaper Markische Allgemeine put it: "The cold-bloodedness with which Mr Biedenkopf has broken EU law appears to be paying off."

There is frustration in western Germany, too. More and more, people suspect that the EU is taking them for a ride, draining wealth from the prosperous society that they built so painstakingly from the ruins of 1945. Small wonder that the finance ministry in Bonn is finally responding and drawing up plans to cut Germany's net contribution to the EU budget.

Germans are heartily tired of being the EU's paymaster when almost 4 million people are out of work - the highest number since Hitler's time - and their government is imposing austerity measures in order to meet the Maastricht treaty's conditions for launching the single currency. Inevitably, public attitudes are feeding through into government policy.

Thus Mr Kohl has successfully squashed proposals by Jacques Santer, the EU Commission's president, to launch a grand Europe-wide job creation scheme, funded partly out of the EU budget. It matters little to Mr Kohl that this was Mr Santer's pet project and about the only notable initiative that he has come up with since taking over the Commission.

More important for Mr Kohl is that Germans should not form the impression that the EU is squandering money (more of it from Germany than anywhere else) on dubious undertakings. It is bad enough that Germans already blame the EU for operating a tariff system that causes them to pay over the odds for bananas, one of their favourite fruits.

In some ways, Germany's muscle-flexing in the EU is nothing new. Consider the memorandum that summed up the now notorious discussions at Chequers in 1990 that Baroness Thatcher held with a number of experts on the theme of "what to do about Germany".

The note recorded the participants' view that "the way in which the Germans currently used their elbows and threw their weight about in the European Community suggested that a lot had still not changed". However, some would say that this opinion reveals more about British paranoia than about actual German behaviour.

If Germany is less coy these days about sticking up for its interests in Europe, this is because ordinary Germans are no longer the passive pro-Europeans of the pre-unification age. This, in turn, may reflect a certain combativeness and harshness that has entered German life since the radically different societies of east and west were suddenly lumped together and told to get on with it.

Mr Kohl, aware of these trends, sometimes voices the fear that he may prove to be Germany's last pro-European Chancellor. That is why he is so keen to make a success of monetary union.

For my part, I see no reason to be alarmist about the new, more individualistic, more assertive Germany. What Professor Norman Stone wrote in 1991 still holds true: "We are in fact lucky to have the Germans around. They have learned all mightily from their awful past, looked to other countries as models and now exemplify what a modern Western country should be like."