Leading Article: German doubts over Europe

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be an irony if the German government, long the main motor of European union, were now to become the most restrictive in its implementation of the Maastricht treaty. Yet that is the prospect after the constitutional court rules tomorrow on legal challenges to the treaty. The court is unlikely to challenge the government directly by declaring the entire document unconstitutional, but it is expected to introduce reservations and interpretations that will, perhaps embarrassingly, restrict the government's freedom.

The court has been asked to decide if Maastricht threatens German sovereignty and undermines democratic control by the federal and regional parliaments. These questions join left and right, both among the public and in the court itself, where the judges are political nominees elected by both houses of the federal parliament. Conservatives are worried about national sovereignty, left- wingers about the 'democratic deficit' in Europe.

The court is supposed to be above politics, but has always been sensitive to the political implications of its decisions. In this case it will be well aware that most Germans now regard European union with ambivalence. Thus many months of legal deliberation may have brought it to a position that roughly mirrors public opinion.

Until unification, the European Community was Germany's substitute for a national identity, its guarantor of respectability and the underpinning of its prosperity, unquestioned except on the fringe. Germans still show no signs of wanting to turn away from the Community or the Western alliance. Support for Nato has actually risen since unification, while 'national consciousness' has declined. But 71 per cent are against abandoning the mark in favour of a European currency, and only 35 per cent want a common European state. A rising number also resent the amount that Germany pays into the Community.

This shift is sometimes presented in Britain as an intellectual conversion to the British view of Europe as a union of sovereign states. In fact it has been induced partly by the repossession of Germany's full sovereignty and national identity, fractured though this remains by the separateness of former East Germany; partly by the strain of contributing to the reconstruction of the former Soviet bloc; and partly by deepening worries about the competitiveness of German industry.

More positively, the shift brings Germany closer to the doubts that have risen in other nations. So each further stage of European development will have to be debated and negotiated, not just among governments but with voters. In this process the Germans - goaded, perhaps, by their constitutional court - could provide the same drive as they once did towards the unquestioned goal of a federal Europe.

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