Leading Article: If the Germans say 'nein'. . .

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GERMANY lies at the centre of the storm that has swept over European currencies in the past few days. German borrowing to pay for unification keeps European interest rates uncomfortably high. German reluctance to continue supporting weak currencies put pressure on the lira and the pound. The indiscretion of Helmut Schlesinger, president of the Bundesbank, finally broke the pound. Now it will be largely German attitudes that determine whether any future arrangements can be made to work.

Responsibility does not necessarily carry blame. Miscalculations over the cost of unification were easy to make because there was no precedent to draw on. The fatal decision to treat East German currency as equal to West German was made in response to fears that any other exchange rate would bring East Germans flooding westward in unmanageable numbers. The Bundesbank's recent refusal to cut interest rates by more than a token amount can be defended as fulfilment of its statutory duty to protect Germany from inflation; it never asked for the mark to become a reserve currency.

Only the loose tongue of the Bundesbank's president looks truly indefensible. The evidence points to a deliberate attempt to force a realignment of currencies after the French had vetoed a revaluation of the mark. If that is the case, the leaks were an underhand manoeuvre that took the Bundesbank into areas of European politics where it had no business to be. If the bank is going to argue that it is entitled to ignore European interests because it is bound by law to consider only what is good for the domestic currency, the least it can do is keep its mouth shut on other issues.

Looking to the future, however, the unelected bank is probably closer to German public opinion than the elected government. German debate on Europe has been stifled by fear of upsetting the neighbours. All three main parties have supported the drive towards European union in order to demonstrate that the policies of a united Germany will be no more threatening than those of the former Federal Republic. In this they have colluded with the French desire to tie Germany quickly into a tighter union before its old nationalist demons start to re-emerge. Only the extreme right has publicly challenged this policy. The muted consensus of the political establishment may now break under the new strains imposed upon it, in which case the public will become more involved. Many Germans have listened to the French debate with growing distaste, hearing that the main purpose of European union is to curb their alleged ambitions and milk their resources. At the same time, they are becoming steadily more fearful of allowing their precious mark to disappear into a common European currency. The more turbulent the international environment becomes, the more firmly they cling to this symbol of all that they have achieved since the war.

Thus, even if the exchange rate mechanism is repaired and restored, and even if the French vote yes to the Maastricht treaty on Sunday, the chances are now very small that a German government will be able to find public support for joining monetary union in the foreseeable future. Any plans for Europe that ignore German feelings on this issue will certainly be doomed.