Kohl squirms in face of bankers' gloomy verdict

Tuesday 05 May 1998 23:02

BONN - At what age are international statesmen over the hill? Helmut Kohl, 68 years young and fresh from a slimming course, is trying to persuade German voters he has another four years in him. Wim Duisenberg, in contrast, is an emaciated 62-year-old who clearly could not be expected to soldier on for eight years as head of the European Central Bank.

This, in essence, is the disingenuous line the German Chancellor has found himself selling since his return from Brussels. He was, he admitted, "extremely annoyed" with the horse-trading but did not consider the outcome dishonourable. Election posters saluting the "stable euro" under Mr Kohl's benevolent gaze were still prominently displayed outside Christian Democrat headquarters yesterday.

The "little family row" in Brussels, a senior CDU politician predicted, would be forgotten, perhaps, in five years. In the interim, the party must fight an uphill election battle on the EMU "achievement" without drawing too much attention to the humiliation just meted out to its chief architect.

"Helmut Kohl has certainly been damaged by this," admitted Theo Waigel, the Finance Minister. Though the money markets took the debacle in their stride, Germany's angst-ridden money-men are despondent.

"The government heads have already named the successor [to Duisenberg] and this is a breach of the [Maastricht] Treaty," lamented Klaus-Dieter Kuhbacher, a member of the all-powerful Bundesbank Council. "The next breach of the treaty is pre-programmed."

When the Bundesbank worries, German voters reach for the Prozac. It matters little what currency traders do between now and September, when the Chancellor goes to the country for a fifth term. The impression that he allowed himself to be bulldozed aside by the French President will certainly linger till election day.

It is with this in mind that the Chancellor must defend himself today in front of an emergency debate in the Bundestag, and then put on his smiling face for the meeting in Avignon with Brother Jacques. Another family squabble can, perhaps, be concealed this time from peeping neighbours, but the damage has been done.

The minority of the German media that remain loyal to Mr Kohl speak of "long-term scars" to the special relationship between France and Germany.

Francophiles in the Chancellor's entourage feel betrayed: the strategy of a common front with France on all major issues of European integration has been fatally undermined by the French.

The mighty Bundesbank, which has grudgingly turned a blind eye to French accounting tricks in the past, will not forget this. Frankfurt as well as the politicians on both sides of Bonn's parliamentary divide blame President Chirac, and are openly contemptuous of his "pursual of French national interests at all cost".

How Chancellor Kohl feels about the weekend's events is somewhat less relevant, given the prospect of his imminent retirement, thanks partly to his friends in Paris. But the high-handed way in which he was treated at the weekend is seen as an affront to all of Germany: a grudge to be borne by his successors.

The infamy of Brussels is thus set to mark a turning-point. The Franco- German axis, more of a myth than a fact since the departure of Francois Mitterrand, is about to snap.

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