Partners must shed their past: Germany is just as guilty of tunnel vision as France and Britain, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR'S visit to Bonn last week was neatly followed yesterday by a Franco-German summit, an occasion for routine photo opportunities and much public purring about the excellent state of bilateral relations. In these circumstances, it is natural that the British wonder precisely what purpose Mr Major's visit was supposed to serve. We should not be too downcast.

The visit may have succeeded in ironing out some of the recent British-German misunderstandings. After all, the interests of the two countries are similar on the most pressing matters of foreign policy: both want a speedy conclusion to the Gatt talks, and both see eye to eye on the reform of Europe's security structures.

Yet German suspicion still lingers that co-operation with London does not amount to genuine friendship. While the Germans' resentment may be justified, Bonn shares the blame for many of the current tensions. Betraying an often desperate urge to be liked, the Germans over-reacted to the revelations in Baroness Thatcher's memoirs that she and other European leaders feared German unification. Lady Thatcher's characterisation of Chancellor Helmut Kohl as a provincial leader was certainly offensive, and the idea that the French President and British Prime Minister pored over old maps which the great lady just happened to pull out of her handbag should have been dismissed as pure farce. But the real tragedy of this episode is that it took place so recently and that leaders who claimed to have a vision of the future were paralysed by their tunnel vision of the past.

Yet this is not an exclusively British problem: in a curious way Bonn's own politicians unconsciously believe in the very cliches about Germany that they claim to resent so much. The same Chancellor who repeatedly asserts that European unity is 'unstoppable' also warns against anything that may reverse the process. Kohl's approach is little different from that of people who still regard Germans as delinquents who must be compelled to visit a social worker regularly to keep out of mischief.

The outpouring of vitriol against the Bavarian prime minister, Edmund Stoiber, who recently ventured to draw attention to the increasing electoral liability of the European Union, is instructive. Bonn's leaders, while urging other people to come to terms with their history, still believe that their nation suffers from 'evil spirits' which can be exorcised only by keeping to their vision of Europe. So nobody should be surprised if, alongside the old political discourse, old fears of the Germans are maintained as well.

A compelling case can be made that, for Germany at least, national interests are indistinguishable from the existence of European institutions. After all, the European Community allowed Germany to rise from the ashes and grow to be an economic giant without unduly alarming its neighbours. A full 78 per cent of Germany's exports stay within the Union as well. Moreover, preventing the re- nationalisation of Europe's defence and foreign policies is imperative for the whole continent, not a solely German interest.

As the country with more neighbours than any other and a fear of becoming a frontline state, Germany has quite properly led demands for the enlargement and the reform of both Nato and the European Union. But Chancellor Kohl appears unable to go from there to the logical conclusion that many of the internal arrangements within these institutions, including the special Franco-German axis that drove many of the European Union's affairs in the past, may be counter-productive today.

Europe's problem is not to do with Germany, but to do with France, deriving from President Francois Mitterrand's inability to come to terms with the new continent and its effect on France's illusions of grandeur. On almost every major issue, the French and the Germans now start from diametrically opposite positions: the desire to paper over these cracks is often a bigger reason for Europe's paralysis than Britain's persistent equivocation over a tighter Union. The same Chancellor who claims that he has little control over the Bundesbank also promises President Mitterrand that all will come right in the end, and that a monetary union designed to prevent Germany from translating its economic potential into political influence will take place as scheduled, despite stiff opposition from the German population.

London has long abandoned attempts to sever the Franco-German link. As far as British politicians are concerned, moreover, it is in everyone's interest not just to maintain, but to enlarge the Bonn-Paris axis. Chancellor Kohl, for his part, likes to claim that he is only too willing to reciprocate by establishing close relations with Britain and, while progress has been made, appearances are just as important as deeds.

The Germans have never shown any compunction about criticising British governments publicly, and often quite brutally. Yet whenever a dispute arises between Paris and Bonn, Chancellor Kohl's lieutenants immediately refer to history, claiming that a close relationship with the French is essential to erase more than a century of hostilities. Presumably the history that needs to be erased is quite different from the history that Lady Thatcher and her successor are expected to have forgotten already.

Despite all the attacks on Mr Major, it was not Britain but Germany that had the distinction of being the last state to ratify the Maastricht treaty. Britain's reservations about the treaty are also trifling in comparison to those subsequently expressed by the Bundestag and Germany's Constitutional Court. Further, it was not Britain, but France that had the gall to justify the treaty publicly as a mechanism for keeping the Germans down. And it is France, not Britain, that constantly raises obstacles to the enlargement of both Nato and the EU.

The British government's attitude causes resentment very often only because London is not prepared to adopt the 'never mind the facts, just feel the vision' approach so favoured in Paris and Bonn. John Major's article in the Economist in the summer was detested in both capitals precisely because everyone knew that many of his arguments about the difficulties on the road to European union were true.

Equally, the many opportunities for co-operation that Britain is supposed to have missed were no opportunities at all. Is anyone surprised that the British should be suspicious of the Eurocorps project launched by France and Germany's troops - given the fact that London was not consulted before its creation? And is it really wise to launch a Franco-German 'initiative' before every European summit? The desire of Paris and Bonn to show how much they lead the EU puts the British on the defensive before every European summit, and usually for no particular purpose.

The reality is that Bonn, like most capitals, is dominated by people who live in the past and who cannot be bypassed, almost regardless of what Mr Major does. Among them are the Chancellor's foreign policy adviser, Joachim Bitterlich, a man who acquired everything from France: an education, a wife, a penchant for inventing new linguistic terms to define meaningless concepts, and a visceral suspicion of everything British. His vision of the British as an 'island race' incapable of understanding 'Europe' is as primitive as the view that Germans would like nothing better than to don their jackboots and helmets again.

None of this week's mutual back- slapping between France and Germany should worry Britain much, partly because London should not engage in a beauty contest and partly because the Franco-German axis, at least as originally framed, has outlived its purpose. Yet the wider issue of accommodating the new Germany remains the concern of all Europeans. The Germans are right to ask for their neighbours' understanding and support. But this process of accommodation must be reciprocated in Bonn: Germany's allies should shed past instincts, but so must the Germans.

The author is Director of Studies, Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)