We need not fear the giant: The new Germany has real clout, but that does not mean it threatens Europe, says Jonathan Eyal

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AT ALMOST every level, Germany's image is surrounded by myths: people with a propensity for domination and love for the jackboot; a country where immigrants are burnt with impunity: these are the cliches recycled by many media correspondents in one form or another. Nothing can destabilise Europe more than the perpetuation of such nonsense. For the good of the entire continent, the German giant must awake from its self-imposed hibernation. And accommodating a greater Germany is Europe's major task today.

Far from being racist, the distinguishing characteristic of today's Germany is precisely its openness to foreigners. More than 1 million refugees have been admitted since 1990, more than twice the total accepted by all other European countries combined. A scrupulous attention to record- keeping means that Germany's racist violence is well documented, but not necessarily higher than elsewhere in Europe. And the Republican party, with its repugnant ideology, would be lucky to break through the 5 per cent vote threshold, required for representation in parliament, at next year's elections, while its counterparts elsewhere on the continent capture far greater support.

Germany takes its responsibility for its past seriously. Parties espousing Nazi ideology can be and are banned; elsewhere in Europe they are allowed to flourish in the name of free speech. True, Chancellor Kohl has often sounded lukewarm in his condemnation of racist violence. But the country's president, and millions of his compatriots, have expressed their disgust in a forthright manner. And no German politician would dare to complain about immigrants' 'foul smells' as French politicians have done.

The future of German democracy is not in doubt. Indeed, the country's current problems may be due precisely to the fact that the lessons of the past continue to weigh so heavily in today's totally different situation. Germany's post-war leaders have positively run away from defining their country's national interests, fearing that such a dream may turn again into a nightmare. Safely tucked away under the West's nuclear umbrella, they paid lip service to a unification they suspected would never come, and created a republic that elevated classic petit bourgeois interests to the status of a religion. A stable currency and not a spiked helmet became the symbol of its prowess; economic prosperity served as the basis of its legitimacy. Affluent German tourists replaced the Wehrmacht in invading Europe's coastline.

The EC served Germany well. Germany's economic growth, unlike that of Japan, was achieved without alarming its neighbours, and the close alliance with France provided the impetus for further integration. The Franco-German axis was founded on three assumptions. The first was that the continent's frontiers needed no definition: everything east of the Berlin Wall was presumed lost forever. The second was an instinctive belief that the ideal of 'Europe' was virtually synonymous with national interests. And finally, there was the fiction that France and Germany, despite their changing economic situations, could continue to act as equals, led by Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand, who enjoyed holding hands in public like dutiful schoolboys. A blind insistence on pretending that these assumptions are immutable is at the root of Germany's current problems.

Contrary to common belief, Kohl did not bungle the process of German unification and the financial cost that the process entails was virtually unavoidable. The argument that the East German mark should not have been exchanged on parity with the West German currency is correct, but hardly profound: not even Germany is run by accountants and no Chancellor could have started unification by pulverising the lifetime savings of millions of citizens who, for no fault of their own, lived under communism.

Bonn certainly underestimated the cost of unification. But the West as a whole had no idea that command economies are basically unreformable: once tinkered with, they simply collapse. A 'gradual' process of unification proposed by the opposition Social Democrats was no more realistic than the 'painless' unification promised by Kohl.

Kohl's fundamental mistake was in the facile assumption that the old European agenda could continue unhindered, despite Germany's transformation. The Chancellor is a product of the Adenauer generation, the Rhineland leaders who started their careers in Land politics, where fixing a city's plumbing was considered a triumph, and graduated to a boring federal capital where making a controversial decision was a cardinal sin. Consensus between main parties and between workers and employees was at the heart of Germany's post-war success. Today, however, running Europe's biggest country by committee is no longer possible: Germany needs leaders commensurate with its rank.

German unity and European unity, proclaims Kohl, can be achieved in tandem. The reality is the opposite: the Maastricht method of European construction is currently designed precisely to erase the consequences of Germany's looming power. The rush to create a European monetary union, the dark warnings that 'Europe' either has a single currency by the end of this century or falls apart, the wilful neglect of the east Europeans: all are based on the singular obsession with pouring concrete on Greater Germany while this is still possible, by preventing Germany from translating economic power into political influence.

The effort is doomed to fail. With the exception of Luxembourg, not one of the EC members now meets the economic criteria for monetary union. The exchange rate mechanism is touted as an instrument for economic stability. In fact, it is a new gold standard arrangement which, without the existence of currency controls, very often acts as nothing but a charter for speculators. And, most importantly, it has made Germany the main culprit in Europe, creating new and even more dangerous myths.

Europe's current recession is supposedly the result of high German interest rates which, in turn, were made inevitable by Chancellor Kohl's reluctance to reduce his country's budget deficit. This seemingly simple explanation will not do. The continent's unemployment troubles are more profound and, while cutting Germany's budget deficit is clearly required, this is a task which neither France nor Britain has been particularly adept at meeting at home.

Furthermore, the governments that criticise Germany for its high interest rates usually forget that they decided to tie their currency to the German mark precisely because it was the only monetary unit that never devalued, run by a bank independent of the politicians' control. The pain France suffers today is self-inflicted: a fisherman who ties his rickety boat to a submarine cannot complain if the submarine suddenly decides to dive. Ultimately the problem with the ERM is not economic, but one of political legitimacy: Europeans are asked to suffer on behalf of a European monetary union dream that every financial expert knows will not happen this century.

However, pillorying Germany, and usually for the wrong reasons, carries long-term consequences. Forced to defend their country abroad, unable to justify at home why Germany should continue to be self-effacing, and alarmed by France's propensity to forge European unity by unleashing a trade war, all Germman politicians are now caught in a spiral of confusion.

On the one hand, Kohl and most of his people continue to believe in the EC. Yet at the same time, the Government reaches a separate agreement with the Americans exempting German goods from trade retaliation, thereby undercutting the EC's negotiating stance. Everything, including the question of refugees, abortion, or the despatch of German troops outside Nato's frontiers, is presented as a grave constitutional matter, requiring a binding decision from a court. In fact, all these issues are political disputes, conducted through legalistic justifications by leaders loath to make unpopular decisions.

There is no doubt that Germany will emerge from its current travails, probably sooner than many predict. Yet the new Germany cannot and will not be the Bonn republic conceived by Adenauer. The idea that a country could be an economic giant but remain a political pygmy was always foolish. The generation of German leaders who instinctively believed that their people must be taught democracy and could not be trusted with independent, international responsibilities is disappearing. An entire continent should take heed of the appeal to his countrymen from Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, to believe in 'healthy patriotism'. Germany must become a normal country, a nation proud of its traditions. The Maastricht project, far from being a new dawn, is the end of old Europe. The new continent will have not only the German mark, but Germany as its anchor. And the French, who still find this unacceptable, will have to realise that trying to tie Germany down in a myriad of ersatz structures cannot work.

The writer is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)