Side by side, masters of disaster: From a dream into a nightmare with Kohl and Mitterrand. Godfrey Hodgson puts his finger on who did what to Europe

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For the mess in which Europe now finds itself, there is plenty of blame to go round. But the irony is that the two principal architects of disaster are none other than the two outstanding figures who were left on the European scene after the departure of Margaret Thatcher: Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand.

The nature of their respective responsibilities for the disaster is oddly characteristic of their national stereotypes. There is something ponderous about the blundering way in which Chancellor Kohl has pursued German self-interest, sacrificing the interests of Europe in the process; something coruscating about the intelligent cynicism with which President Mitterrand saw in the travails of the Maastricht treaty a brilliant solution to his own political problems.

It has to be said that if President Mitterrand's responsibilty for the crisis is the more direct, because it was his referendum that set off the turmoil in the currency markets, Chancellor Kohl's is the more fundamental. The Chancellor surprised the world by the swiftness with which he seized the opportunity of reuniting Germany, but since then he has stumbled at almost every step.

It may yet prove to have been something close to a trillion-dollar mistake to have offered to exchange the East German Ostmark against the Deutschmark at a parity of one for one. But that was only the most obvious example of the way Bonn underestimated every dimension of the task of reunification: political, social, economic and financial.

Politically, Chancellor Kohl's government now finds itself preoccupied with the various consequences of reunification to the exclusion of almost everything else. He and his advisers had no idea of the social effect that 45 years of Communism, coming on top of 12 years of Nazism, had had on the east German psyche and society. Confronted with frightening social change including huge unemployment, east Germans - and too many west Germans as well - responded in ways which the liberal Federal Republic thought it had buried forever: with xenophobia, violence and a lock-step, authoritarian attitude.

The economic cost was almost as seriously underestimated. It has transformed the German economy from an athletic, youthful giant into an anxious, hypochondriacal Hausfrau. Only a couple of years ago the Germans were bursting with confidence that they could maintain low inflation and high growth while transforming the eastern Lander and pouring investment funds into the rest of eastern Europe. Now German public opinion is fearful and pessimistic, and the German government - not to mention the Bundesbank - gives the impression of wanting only to protect an economic Festung Deutschland - Fortress Germany. Specifically, of course, the new pessimism caused unprecedentedly high German real interest rates. Those rates deprived Germany's European partners, not least Britain, of the monetary weapon for encouraging recovery from their recessions; and so made prolonged stagnation and unemployment inevitable.

It was German blunders and German self-interest that heaped up the combustible materials of the currency crisis. It was French cynicism that applied the match. President Mitterrand's political and electoral situation has been desperate since the municipal elections this spring revealed the collapse of the Socialist vote and the threat from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. Nothing, it seemed, could save President Mitterrand from humiliating defeat at the hands of his former partners in cohabitation, led by his bete noire, Jacques Chirac.

President Mitterrand told the Independent on Sunday that his motive in calling a referendum was not to split his opponents. Nobody in France believes him. In any case, if he did call the referendum to help himself out of a political quandary, he is no longer alone. Every politician in France - with the partial exception of Mr Chirac - is doing the same. Phillipe Seguin, for example, one of the leaders of the 'no' campaign on the right, scarcely bothers to hide the pleasure he gets from the opportunity to settle old scores with Mr Chirac.

Michel Debre, the former Gaullist prime minister, has said that the atmosphere in France is close to that of civil war (he exaggerates), and that it reminds him of the Dreyfus affair. That is an interesting parallel, but not perhaps the most significant or the most ominous. After all, shocking as the treatment of Captain Dreyfus was, the historical function of the affair was to discredit the reactionary right in France for a generation.

The more sinister similarity is with the period in which young Francois Mitterrand, then a law student and right-wing activist, learnt his politics: the locust years between the Stavisky riots in 1934 and the fall of France, in which parliamentarians bickered, manipulated and intrigued while France fiddled and Germany burned. The worst thing that can be said about the way the politicians of the Fifth Republic are reacting to President Mitterrand's referendum is that they are behaving like the politicians of the Third Republic.

There is, however, something even more disturbing than the unimaginative strategies of the German Chancellor and the reckless manoeuvring of the French President; something that may do Europe more harm than the shipwreck of Maastricht and hurt Britain in a more lasting way. That is the damage that Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand have done, no doubt wholly without intending it, to the relationship between their two countries and therefore to the whole European enterprise.

That relationship is the spinal cord of Europe. The founding fathers may have dreamt of European political and economic union as an ideal from the start. But their immediate motivation was defensive. Germany and France had fought three times in the lifetime of the older of those men. In all of their lifetimes, war between Germany and France had carried Europe over the threshold of barbarism and close to the brink of extinction. Only by making France and Germany so economically, and therefore militarily, interdependent - with German steelmills relying on Lorraine ore and French forges on Ruhr coal - that they could neither make nor threaten war, could the foundations of lasting peace be laid.

That was the germ of the European idea. And successive leaders in Germany and France - Kurt Schumacher and Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d'Estaing - whatever their personal political orientations, have made the link between their two countries an absolute, bedrock priority.

The two countries' economies are as intertwined as ever. But somehow, under these two men, the lumbering Rhinelander and the sharp-witted Gascon, the link has been accorded a lower value. In foreign policy - not least in relations with the former Yugoslavia, but also in the Gulf - they have trod their own paths. Chancellor Kohl, in his preoccupation with reunification, put Deutschland uber alles. And President Mitterrand often seemed to embrace Maastricht not as a means of grappling Germany more safely to France in friendship, but as a means of roping the rogue German elephant: a subtle difference but a vital one.

So far the crisis has seemed to be about the exchange rate mechanism, the Italian lira and the British pound. Beneath and behind that, it will determine whether Europe moves forward to closer economic and political union, as foreseen in the Maastricht treaty, or not. But it is now clear that, whether the French vote oui or non on Sunday, whether Maastricht is doomed or not, there is a deeper and even more historical question at issue: whether, thanks to the historical negligence of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the alliance between Germany and France is coming to an end. If that were to happen, Europe would not only fail to move towards union. It would move backwards to dangerous discord.

(Photograph omitted)