Leading Article: Let's raise a glass to Kohl, a man who played the game

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BY their enemies, ye shall know them. By the time Helmut Kohl arrived at Guildhall last night to receive the Freedom of the City of London, a fearsome opposition - of pen-pushers and last-ditchers - had formed. It consisted of the United Kingdom Stop-the-World-I-Want-to-Get- Off Party, a junior lecturer from that home of lost causes, the University of Oxford, and a whey-faced jokesmith from a Tory newspaper whose idea of humour is that Germans would throw the Chancellor out of the window if only they could find one big enough (sidesplitting, ja?). Anti-German sentiment is these days confined to a band of malcontents, reactionaries, hack writers for foreign-owned newspapers, Jingoes and little Englanders. They are boorish yes, but would be worth apologising for only if Helmut Kohl were not seasoned in the occasional discomforts of democratic politics. To his country's credit, he is.

The war, let's not forget, finished 53 years ago; Britain has been a fellow member with Germany of the European Union (Community as was) for the past 23. There are - as long as the liberal world order lasts - profound convergences of interest between our two countries. Among the differences is justifiable British caution over membership of the European Monetary Union. But relations with Germany are in pretty good nick and even if he were not a figure of historic dimensions, the German Chancellor would be an honoured and welcome visitor.

We can, let's hope, dispense with grandiose talk about competing "models". The idea, propagated by a Labour Prime Minister as well as Tory predecessors, that there is a shining and exportable British path to economic salvation is nonsense. British macroeconomic circumstances are currently favourable; beyond that it would be tempting fate to go. Germany meanwhile has 5 million unemployed, which at this stage in the economic cycle is dismaying. A friendly but objective analyst would fault the Chancellor and his Christian Democrats for a failure of imagination, together with the sclerosis in the policy process imposed by German's federal constitution. That same friendly analyst would also register the maturity of German political conversation and the way all parties are seeking a way forward and respect Germany's determination not to throw out the baby of social peace with the bathwater of economic stagnation. When Germans, on all sides, say their country has no appetite for Kapitalismus pur, we are in no position to disagree.

There is moreover a special reason why Helmut Kohl deserves decoration. Britain helped create the entity of the German federal republic; we have an ineradicable interest in European peace and stability. We have no choice but to delight in the strength of the vision he has offered his fellow country-men - a positive and peaceful vision, that is, of themselves.

There is, let's not mince words, a German problem, compounded of geography, economic potency and nationalist sentiment ... the death this week of Ernst Junger was a reminder of the cauldron's depth. Post war there were ways in which divided Germany might have become a loose cannon. What, first, Konrad Adenauer did was to anchor his country in the West and use membership of the EC to re-present the country's possibilities to itself. Helmut Kohl's significance has been to update the game and run with the ball.

At the heart of that effort is the Franco-German alliance - something which British commentators and politicians alike find difficult to understand. Governments change in Paris but the liaison continues unruffled. British attempts at seduction, usually perfunctory, leave nary a mark. It is a sign of Kohl's success that were he to lose the federal elections this October to the Social Democrats both their potential candidates - Gerhard Schroder and Oskar Lafontaine - would follow the well-trodden path to France without demur. There is no question that EMU is the logical continuation of the Franco-German project, which is why British membership is so fraught with difficulties. Yes, it is "political", and for that reason the 155 German economics professors who wrote recently predicting doom and gloom are barking up the wrong tree: the Chancellor, with the French political class, believes that political will can change economic destiny. We in Britain, graduates of the Thatcher school, find that hard to swallow; we are well advised to wait and see.

But there is no denying the historical force of Helmut Kohl's plan, the nobility of his ambitions for melding his proud countrymen into a permanent pact for peace in Europe. That is why mere good neighbourliness requires us to applaud the City Corporation's award to him. If the Chancellor were now to utilise his right as a Freeman to take a drink or three in Threadneedle Street, then prosit!