Why we must listen for the Panzer's rumble

Helmut Kohl has exaggerated the risk of war should the European Union falter, but the German Who Remembers speaks a general truth
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The Independent Online
There is probably no boring subject which is more interesting than the European Union. Its boringness derives from its daily discourse; all that stolid droning about harmonisation and cohesion funding. Its interest comes from the sudden screams of anger, such as the warnings of British Euro-sceptics about the death of the UK, or Chancellor Kohl's wild threat that the issue is one of peace or war.

Instantly we are swept from a tableful of podgy men discussing the Maastricht criteria to a livid vision of Panzer tanks crashing through the walls of burning villages. It is like one of those pieces of Modernist music in which long spells of muted plonking are intermittently broken by a man smashing a hammer on to a giant cymbal.

The British reaction to Kohl has been patronising. Our government sees the German leader as an old man in a hurry, one of the last European leaders haunted by the last war. He is, they believe, out of touch with modern Europe, a space woven together by trade and culture, one part of the global economy in which war between the main players is unthinkable. Peace or war? There, there, Helmut; have another doughnut.

Kohl's language was extreme. But anyone with a smattering of history ought to be aware of one uneasy parallel. Not the pre-Second World War complacency, for the rise and danger of fascism was well known and understood, but rather the widespread belief before the First World War that it wouldn't happen, for many of the same reasons as we think the same today.

Then as now, Russia was seen as an unstable and autocratic country, whose political unpredictability was a greater threat than civilised Germany. Then as now, there was a developing global economy founded on relatively free trade, and seen as the best guarantee for a prosperous civilian future. The upper-middle classes took Continental holidays, spoke French, admired German industry.

In this freer-trading world, Norman Angell's famous book The Great Illusion had claimed to demonstrate that war did not pay and was illogical. In the words of AJP Taylor, Angellism "assumed that the laws of economic liberalism were eternal. It supposed that international banking and the gold standard, respect for private property and the Stock Exchange, would survive all upheavals."

For many, the implication was that war would not happen. As late as August 1914, the radical-liberal Nation explained: "German supremacy is ... almost certainly ended for ever."

I dig back to those mistakes only because history plays jokes with our certainties, and because it is possible to see parallels between the globalised economy now and then.

There are, however, at least three glaring differences which make Malcolm Rifkind more right than Kohl, at least in the medium term. The first, obviously, is nuclear and chemical weaponry, which have raised the dangers of war for big states even higher, far higher, than ever before.

The second is the absence of manic imperialism in London and Berlin; had British liberals known in 1910-14 quite how virulently militaristic, anti-Semitic and paranoic the Kaiser's court was - a regime uncovered in its full nastiness by modern German historians - then they would have been rather less chirpy.

And the third is the European Union itself. Its record as a peacekeeper is, thus far, nil. The Cold War, nuclear technology and Nato were the big facts behind which the EU slowly developed. But this doesn't mean that the EU might not be a major contributor to Continental peace over the next 50 years, when the Cold War is forgotten and American policy has become more focused on the Pacific and Asia.

Assuming, of course, that there is an EU. For it isn't clear what a European Union would mean without monetary union. Since the Sixties, it has been basically a customs union with knobs on. But the EU's external tariffs are becoming ever less significant. Once the last round of Gatt deals have been implemented, its tariffs on industrial goods are down to an average of 3.6 per cent, and America's are down to 3.5 per cent (though that last figure conceals serious highs and lows on particular goods). If the World Trade Organisation is effective as the co-ordinator of the drive to trade liberalisation, then this process will go ever further. Within a few years, 99 per cent of the developed world's industrial goods will be bound by WTO deals.

Agriculture is still far more heavily protected. But even here, a combination of the expansion of the EU eastwards, making the Common Agricultural Policy as it is hopelessly expensive, and changes in weather and world farming which make European products more competitive, challenge the long-term importance of the CAP.

This doesn't mean that the EU won't matter. It will remain one of the key world blocs for negotiating the removal of other trade barriers. But if the EU's trade walls fall, and if it isn't bound by farming subsidies, then what are its foundations? It is nowhere near being a military or diplomatic power, as the Bosnians can attest. Other than the single currency, what is there?

Increasingly both the most committed enemies and the most committed friends of Europe have come to the same conclusion, which is why both Kohl and the British Euro-sceptics speak so luridly on the subject. Without EMU, no secure EU. That means, if you are Kohl, that the whole post-war dream of integration and peace starts to rumble into reverse. The nightmare beckons.

Except, of course, that it quite plainly doesn't. Kohl has deafened himself with the power of his own rhetoric. Union matters, but there are other kinds. If we are worried about European peace, then trade, joint defence treaties and mutual economic prosperity are all more important than the single currency. The democratic questions raised by a single European economic policy decided far away from most voters could destabilise our politics just as much as modern nationalism.

It is easy to mock Kohl for going over the top about monetary union; in a shallow sense he is not just wrong, he is being ridiculous. But that isn't the end of this story. European nationalism has been one of the main causes of human misery during this century; and it is foolish, 50 years on, to dismiss as risible the German Who Remembers. For at a deeper level, he is right: European Union may be expensive and intrusive, but it is vastly less expensive, intrusive and dangerous than European Disunion.

And we are unlikely to secure peace by simply assuming that it, like the pre-1914 order, is eternal. It needs effort and vision. The notion that Britons can learn anything about politics from any German isn't popular in London. But Kohl has his truth, too, and he has a noble passion. We would be a bigger country if we heard his general truth as well as his current error, and engaged properly with it, rather than standing on the sidelines, hands in pockets, eyebrows arched and a derisive, know-it-all grin firmly on our faces. His intentions, at least, are benign. Are ours?