Leading Article: Germany keeps an even keel

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER government it has, Germany cannot escape the responsibility that goes with being the largest and richest country in Europe, much though many of its inhabitants would prefer to be Swiss. That is why its elections are watched with special interest.

In some ways it did not matter greatly which of the two main parties won yesterday. Both offered reasonable levels of continuity. The Social Democrats looked slightly less reassuring to the business community, and rumbles of their old neutralist tendencies were unsettling; Helmut Kohl's team looked somewhat jaded, and he clearly mishandled some aspects of unification. But the difference between them was not great.

As it turns out - perhaps aptly - neither has won a clear victory. Mr Kohl has suffered a personal rebuff, but there is little danger of instability.

None of the fringe parties has done well enough to be a serious nuisance, and the far right has been convincingly rejected. The victor in the election, as always in post-war Germany, is moderation. Dr Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, always promised 'no experiments'. The idea still appeals.

Not every country would respond in this way to the enormous strains that the Germans have experienced over the past four years. They have shouldered the high costs of absorbing East Germany, endured recession, and made their economy more competitive by deregulation and cutting social benefits. As in most Western democracies, disillusion with mainstream politics has been spread by boredom, recession and social change, and both main parties have seen their committed voters dwindling away. Unification aggravated political alienation by bringing millions of unattached voters into the system.

Yet the centre holds. Germany will remain a reliable ally, committed to European integration for the foreseeable future. Britain ought to be reassured, but the rifts in British politics will make it difficult to seize the opportunity. One of the worst failures in British politics in recent years has been the collapse of John Major's brief honeymoon with Mr Kohl under the pressure of Conservative Party politics. Bonn then turned to France to accompany it on the next stage in European integration.

Mr Kohl feels it is his mission to see Germany firmly embedded in an integrated Europe before he leaves office. He fears the German consensus on Europe could fray at the edges, and he does not trust the next generation of German leaders to share his commitment.

If Mr Kohl is right in thinking that this is the last chance to prevent the re-nationalisation of European politics, Britain will pay as dearly for its present detachment as it did for staying away from the birth of the Common Market. As Lord Howe suggested yesterday, in remonstrating with Tory Euro- sceptics, Britain can only lose if it fails to take this chance to rejoin the European debate on what shape integration should take.