Unity or chaos - the choice that Germany must make for Europe

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The Independent Online
TEN DAYS ago, the Prime Minister of Bavaria broke a taboo - the holiest in German politics. Edmund Stoiber proclaimed that the time had come to put the interests of the German nation-state first and to halt the growth of 'an overshadowing, undermining European federal state'.

Since then, there has been international panic. Stoiber's critics in Germany hit back with the worst insult they could think of - 'Edmund Thatcher]' - but it is some measure of our decline that the world now takes little notice when a British politician talks like this. On the other hand, when the premier of a German Land uses the same language, the whole future of Europe is suddenly at stake.

It is no comfort to know that Stoiber is taking this line for local party-political reasons; to steal the clothes of the ultra-nationalist Republican Party that threatens the majority of his Christian Social Union at next year's Bavarian elections. He has voiced - and everyone knows it - the restless discontent of many Germans with European integration. And what Germany thinks and does is decisive.

When Hans-Dietrich Genscher was foreign minister, he used to say that 'the more European our foreign policy is, the more national it is'. In his brilliant new book, In Europe's Name, Timothy Garton Ash wonders whether Genscher's maxim will survive the Nineties in a united Germany. He cannot have expected so instant and alarming an answer.

For 40 years, from Konrad Adenauer's time to the day of unification in 1990, West German policy was that the division of Germany could be overcome only in a reunited Europe. By surrendering part of its national sovereignty, Germany would help to bring first the West and then the East into some kind of unity in which - as the final step - the two halves of Germany could safely be put together again. That was the core of the Ostpolitik. But 'life' (as Mikhail Gorbachev used to put it) decided differently. Germany has been united, but the unification of Europe is still a long way off.

That is why Stoiber's remarks have a brutal logic. Put crudely (but not much more crudely than he put it), he was saying: 'We have got what we wanted now. So we no longer need a united Europe.' He went on to add insult to injury by suggesting that people of Helmut Kohl's generation had grown up feeling embarrassed to be German, and had tried to take cover in a spurious 'European' identity. Now that embarrassment should be forgotten.

The pandemonium that has broken out among German politicians is remarkable - and reassuring. One Christian Democrat colleague of Stoiber's went over the top and accused him of 'high treason': he was no better than 'that German-hating old lady in England'. Klaus Kinkel, the foreign minister, called Stoiber 'disastrous, clumsy and unpolitical'.

On Thursday, Chancellor Kohl was finally pushed into responding: 'The consolidation and continuation of the project of European unity is vital for our whole continent, but above all for our own country . . . Nobody wants a European unitary state, but there must be no return to the nation- state thinking of the 19th century and the first half of this one.'

All the same, the unthinkable has been thought and the unspeakable spoken. It is crucial to grasp how appalling Stoiber's heresy is in German terms. To call him 'Edmund Thatcher' is only half the story, for if the British Conservatives decided to pole their island- raft off into the Atlantic and vanish, the European project would survive. But if Germany gives up on European union, all certainties collapse under us like a rotten floor and we plunge down into darkness.

Down there, nation-states strike out blindly at one another. Integration gives way to bilateral alliances as European states seek allies against their neighbours. Germany, so reliable for half a century, would become unberechenbar - unpredictable. At one moment, German national interests might dictate an alliance with France and Russia against Britain and Poland; at another, some Mitteleuropa between the Rhine, the Mediterranean and the Dnieper, designed to fortify a German-dominated central power-bloc. America would leave Europe to its own turmoil, while the free-trading core of the European idea would be poisoned by protectionism.

These are nightmares. But the point about bad dreams is who dreams them. And these are German nightmares, above all. They torment all those serious, painfully responsible citizens who have worked to re-plant Germanness in a new place, where partnership replaced lone-wolf nationalism, where sober liberalism replaced the old manic swing between fanatical self-hatred and fanatical self-assertion, where to be German was not a mission, an honour or a curse but simply a private pleasure. That place was the Federal Republic. It was dull, prosperous, highly predictable - berechenbar. But it was the best state the Germans ever had - and the best German state Germany's neighbours ever had.

Was? Officially, the Federal Republic is still there. Critics of the way in which Germany was united in 1990 complained that the West had simply annexed the East, instead of allowing both states to melt into a new and superior Germany. And yet Germany in 1993 is a new country. It is too big to be manageable in a disintegrated Europe of nation-states. Its light-weight central administration is struggling with unemployment and recession on a scale not seen since the nation's industry lay ruined after 1945. It is divided into rich West and poor East in a way the makers of the federal constitution never foresaw.

Stoiber is saying that a new state needs a new raison d'etat. But he is wrong, and those serious and upright Germans are still right. Germany no longer needs a united Europe in order to win a united Germany. But there are other reasons why a 'European' foreign policy continues to be the best 'national' foreign policy.

One is the economy. The recession reveals that western German industry, let alone eastern, is overpriced and overmanned: a problem that can only be solved by moving forward to economic integration, not backwards to national autarky. A second is the small matter of keeping the peace. Security means bringing Eastern Europe into the Union. But that cannot be done without strengthening and deepening the Union itself: a widened community that remains just a league of nation-states will break up under its own weight. The alternatives for Germany are more European unity or chaos. There is no third way.

This slow fusing of Europe is a process. If it stops, it breaks down. Edmund Stoiber thinks that it can stop now, halfway between a 'Europe of nations' and a federal union. He forgets my favourite German saying, a remark by the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 'It is is no good getting on the wrong train and then rushing down the corridor in the opposite direction]' Stoiber should ponder that. So should the British.