Kohl's victory for federalism

The German chancellor's weekend electoral triumph strengthens his hand in EU talks, says Imre Karacs
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A rejuvenated Helmut Kohl will stride onto the European stage this weekend, his resolve to force the pace of integration stiffened by last Sunday's breath-taking triumph over the domestic opposition.

The greatest challenge so far to his federalist vision for Europe lies in ruins. The Social Democrats of the southern Land of Baden-Wurttemberg, who had campaigned against European Monetary Union, were routed in Sunday's elections to the regional assembly. Popular SPD leaders also plunged to new depths in two other states - Schleswig-Holstein and Rhineland-Palatinate - their supporters seemingly dismayed by the national leadership's erratic course on Europe and the economy.

With that test out of the way, and no major elections due until 1998, Mr Kohl is now able broaden his crusade. On Friday, the German Chancellor will take on the rest of Europe at the Inter Governmental Conference in Turin, offering up the Deutschmark on the altar of closer political union.

Eurosceptics who had assumed that the Chancellor would be in no position to make that bargain must start their calculations anew. They had taken solace in opinion polls highlighting German hostility to EMU and indifference to European Union institutions.

Only yesterday, a Europe-wide survey published by Focus magazine was claiming that a mere 38 per cent of Germans were in favour of the currency that is due to take over in 1999 - the same proportion of voters as in Britain. That is probably a fair reflection of popular opinion, yet other polls have indicated that a majority of Germans believe the Euro will be born on time, and, when asked for their choice of the midwife, most opt for Helmut Kohl. In contrast, the SPD enjoys the confidence of a pathetic 6 per cent of the population on this matter.

The reason for this discrepancy lies in the SPD's failure to confront Mr Kohl's woolly vision with hard economic facts. The Social Democrats' national chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, argues that the Maastricht criteria for EMU are bound to deflate the economies of Europe, aggravating a recession that has raised unemployment in Germany to its highest level since the Second World War. Because of the SPD campaign in Baden-Wurttemberg, Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats were forced to shift the debate to the economy. Big business, Mr Kohl told election rallies in Baden-Wurttemberg, was in favour of the Euro. If EMU was postponed, he said, speculators would "go into the Deutschmark", boosting its value and rendering the country's export-driven industry uncompetitive. And that, he said, "would cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs." After his success on Sunday, he can rest his case.

Assuming that Mr Kohl can deliver the Euro - those bloated French and German budget deficits notwithstanding - it is certain to come with a bill attached. The price was bluntly spelt out last week by Jurgen Stark, State Secretary at the Bonn finance ministry. "What we expect from our partners is that they should also be prepared for greater European integration in areas that are sensitive to them. There must be parallels in sacrificing sovereignty," he said.

Mr Kohl's government wants a common European policy in foreign affairs, defence, the legal and internal domains, asylum, and in the fight against organised crime. "Put it simply: we will only pay our police in Euros when they are allowed to operate across borders in Europe," Mr Stark warned.

This hardline message is aimed at France, Germany's closest - but also trickiest - ally. Implicit in the deal to sell out the Deutschmark, which France wants much more than Germany, is French support for Bonn's goals. Paris is not keen on German policemen loitering on the Champs- Elysee and would rather fudge on the other items on Mr Kohl's shopping list, particularly the EU's eastward expansion.

Mr Kohl and President Jacques Chirac stand shoulder to shoulder on extending majority voting in the community, and on their desire not to allow Britain to sabotage progress. But their agendas are so different that the British Government will have plenty of opportunity to exploit divisions. In Turin's treacherous atmosphere, Germany's master tactician will need to be at his sharpest to score another famous victory against the odds.