Old King Kohl

On Saturday, Helmut Kohl, the “chancellor of German unity,” will turn 80. To mark the occasion, Chancellor Angela Merkel and many others in Germany will deliver nice tributes to old King Kohl; yet his country’s current approach to Europe, and especially to the embattled Eurozone, risks dismantling his European legacy. If you ask why the European project is faltering today, one of the main reasons is that the German motor has stalled. And if you ask why, the short answer is because Germany has become a “normal” nation, like France and Britain. Assuming, that is, anyone in his right mind would call us Brits normal.

In the steps of his mentor, Konrad Adenauer, Kohl tirelessly insisted that German and European unity were “two sides of the same coin.” That coin eventually became the euro. Kohl, like most of his predecessors, was committed to European integration for two reasons: Out of personal wartime experience, he believed in it; and he understood that it served the German national interest. Only by reassuring its neighbors that Germany had changed, and was utterly devoted to blending into Europe, could the Germans hope to achieve their national goal of reunification of Germany in peace and freedom. It worked. When the chance came, unexpectedly, in 1989, Kohl seized it with both hands, and all Europe has benefited. We could not have a Europe whole and free without a Germany whole and free in its center.

Whether Kohl was a great man, he did a great thing -- and history will remember him for it.

One of the most far-reaching consequences of Kohl’s twin-track policy was that Germany gave up its beloved deutsche mark for the euro. Kohl might have wanted to do this anyway, but if you look closely at the historical documents relating to German unification, it is clear that he committed to it in the context of overcoming French President Francois Mitterrand’s hostility to German unification. “Half of Germany for Kohl, the whole D-mark for Mitterrand,” wits quipped at the time. Kohl then used his immense authority at home to push through the euro against the resistance, or at least reluctance, of the majority of his compatriots.

Many economists warned that you could not have a durable monetary union without a single, or at least a more tightly coordinated, fiscal policy, imposing the same discipline on all member states, as well as the possibility of making substantial transfers to those parts of the union doing less well. That never happened, although Kohl hoped that it would.

As in the earlier history of the European Union, economic integration was supposed to catalyze political integration. The Eurozone was to become a magnetic core for political unification. Instead, the Eurozone became a great market for German exports. So, in a fine illustration of the law of unintended consequences, an expected political benefit did not materialize while a less expected economic benefit did. But those basic flaws in the design of European monetary union remained. This year, in the form of a Greek nemesis, they have struck back.

Had he been chancellor today, Kohl’s response to the Greek economic crisis surely would have been to take the next step: putting the long-term politics of European unity before the short-term cost, but also moving toward a stronger fiscal and therefore, by extension, political union.

In the meantime, however, it has become a different Germany. Until unification, Germany wanted to be super-European, for reasons of personal memory, idealism and a sense of historical responsibility, but it also needed to be so, in its own national interest. After unification, at last a fully independent, sovereign country, it no longer needed to be. Everything would now depend on the inner power of wanting.

Students of Germany then watched with interest to see whether it would continue the exceptional European commitment of the Adenauer-to-Kohl Federal Republic. Or would it become a more “normal” nation-state, like France and Britain, pursuing its own national interests, through European channels for choice, but on its own account, even at the expense of others, when it considered that necessary? The special relationship it developed with Russia, including the bilateral securing of its energy needs, gave a clear indication which way post-unification Germany was leaning. Now its response to the first historic crisis of the Eurozone makes the conclusion definite.

Some critics blame Merkel personally for this. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer quips that the onetime Ms. Europe seems to have become Frau Germania. Indeed, this cautious, consensus-building “chancellor of the center” does not have the strategic boldness of an Adenauer or a Kohl; but even a bolder leader could go only so far against the grain of domestic opinion. And from the shrieking headlines of the tabloid Bild newspaper to the costive judgments of the German constitutional court, it is plain that the Germans are not prepared to make any more sacrifices for the sake of “Europe.” For preference, they would probably rather have the D-mark back. Or, failing that, a right, tight little north European “nordo,” leaving the feckless southern Europeans to cope with a weaker “sudo” (or “pseudo” -- a hat tip to former Barclays boss Martin Taylor for this coinage). The economic ramifications are complex and uncertain, but this spring may yet be seen as the beginning of the end of the Eurozone. I want to say quite clearly that the British and the French are the last people who have any right to complain about the Germans starting to behave like the British and the French. That would be pure hypocrisy. It is a pity this is happening, because in the longer term the interests of the British, French, Germans and all Europeans do require that we get our act together in a world of emerging giants such as China. But the Germans have a perfect moral right to be as shortsighted and blinkered as we are.

So instead of complaining, I note this final irony. Twenty years ago, Eurosceptic British Conservatives shrieked with alarm at the prospect of a united Germany imposing a federal European superstate upon us. Some even cried “A Fourth Reich!” Today, as Eurosceptic British Conservatives edge back toward power, we can see that the unintended result of German unification has been the emergence of a more British Europe: dramatically enlarged to the east, intergovernmental rather than federal, with Germany, too, now calmly pursuing its own national interests in its own national way, like Britain and France. Come to think of it, Margaret Thatcher is the one who should be posting a message of thanks on Kohl’s 80th birthday website. Whether the old man would appreciate that particular e-card is another question.

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.