Your country needs Germany

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BUDS are swelling, the magnolia blossom is already lying on the streets. Norman Lamont will not say that spring has actually arrived, but Treasury economists have been counting the daffodils in St James's Park and feel that, on balance, the cyclical indicators are promising. Ministers are happier. The sap is rising. Even Maastricht will be over, eventually.

It is time, therefore, to talk about the bad news.

And I carry, if not bad news, then at least forebodings, from Germany, from the pretty Rhine town of Konigswinter, where the annual conference of the Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft (or British-German Foundation) ended last week. The weather was curious there, too - warm flushes and eddies of snow - but the atmosphere, among politicians, diplomats, journalists and academics, was excellent. And the bad news is not really about Germany, but about Britain.

The two countries, all agreed, still share a great deal. They share, still, an enthusiasm for a free-trading, open but internationally minded Europe. They share common worries about Russia and the condition of Eastern Europe. They certainly share a mood of disillusion about their political elites. Britain is more interested in Germany than vice versa; this is only natural, given their respective sizes.

British-German relations are in good fettle. There are, however, small, dark clouds in the sky. I am not talking about xenophobic nationalism, which is a fringe problem. As one commentator put it, Germany today is nothing like the Weimar Republic: 'Weimar was a democracy without democrats.'

No, the question is a less garish one, about the kind of Germany that is emerging out of the epic adventure of unification. This, it is already clear, will create a new nation that is more than simply a swollen version of the old West Germany. That country was hard- working, materialistic, deeply federalist in spirit and a pillar of European union. It was unassertive and anti-nationalist, the 'big Switzerland'.

Many of those characteristics may survive in the new, united Germany, but others will not. The federalised, divided, regional Germany has been replaced by a large nation, not so terribly different in scale from the Bismarckian Germany of the 1870s. Its capital will again move east. In tone, some think it will gradually become more Protestant, northern, Baltic-orientated than the former FDR.

Just possibly, this new Germany will be easier for Britain. Most senior Germans at Konigswinter, like most British ministers and senior civil servants, believed Germany had to become active militarily in support of the United Nations. Many German commentators are now expressing great frustration about the diffuse nature of political power in their country - Helmut Kohl cannot choose the foreign minister. Some voices are even calling for a first-past-the-post voting system.

These developments would bring Germany and Britain closer. More important, a Germany that felt and acted a little more like a traditional European nation-state would presumably be less enthusiastic about a federal Europe. That's the prospect that has British Tories salivating: an end to the inevitable federal destiny] Erosion of the Franco-German axis] Greater British influence at the heart of Europe] What joy] Senior British politicians have been pretty open in encouraging their German colleagues to be prouder of their nationality. Why? Because Berlin is farther from Brussels than Bonn is.

The only trouble is that history seems more likely to take Germany in the opposite direction. Most German politicians, industrialists and commentators are still basically federal in their thinking. They, like us, assume Maastricht is a turning-point, not a conclusion. But they hope it leads forward to a full European union, not back to a free- trade area. They, like us, want to tie in other countries. But they think that will mean more power for the European Parliament, not less.

In the run-up to the next European intergovernmental conference, scheduled for 1996, the basic choice between a federal Europe and a free- trade association of nations will probably be fought out with renewed ferocity. You thought the battle of Maastricht was hard? Friends, it was only the start.

And if the Maastricht compromise is destroyed this year, either in Britain or (more plausibly) in the second Danish referendum, then this painful choice will suddenly loom closer. There have been early suggestions in Paris that the new Gaullist government will now move quickly to make the Banque de France fully independent. It wants a close economic and European accord with Bonn. There, Chancellor Kohl's government is gearing up for a wave of elections next year and will try to face down the opposition parties with a reassertion of old verities, including a deeper European union. Without Maastricht, the conditions would be ripe for a leap towards an inner European currency union, including the Benelux countries. It would be a disaster for Tory Britain.

Federalism now, or later, is still a real dividing-line between Germany and Britain. In the meantime, and closely related, comes the economic condition of Germany, no longer quite the self-confident powerhouse it used to be. High social costs and high wages are already driving German capital and jobs outside Germany, to Britain as well as the southern EC countries. As this process accelerates, the 'social dumping' row between France and Britain will be repeated more forcibly with German politicians. Worse, a Germany with fast-rising unemployment, cherished social benefits and multiple elections might be more open to the subtle protectionist blandishments from Paris.

None of these questions will be answered quickly or with the clarity of journalism. They will slowly and hesitantly emerge. But they are real ones, even so. For those Britons who want shot of Europe, Germany's search for her new identity offers hope. Either there will be a more traditional German nation-state, or the EC will become intolerably federalist under German influence, forcing Britain to renounce its 'heart of Europe' pretensions.

For the rest of us, that would be a disaster. If Britain has any hope of economic success, it needs to be open to Europe and influential on the Continent. Given the collapse of the Italian political class, this means influential with France and/or Germany. And despite many areas of Franco- British co-operation, Germany remains the more natural political ally.

And yet we do not really know what kind of country the new Germany will turn out to be. Despite gatherings such as that at Konigswinter, the British are remarkably incurious about German politics and aspirations. But with Germany changing again, we cannot afford this indifference; not for the first time, the choices they make will determine ours.