This small book by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is not his own account of what happened as the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany moved to reunification. That is available in his memoirs, published at the same time: Vom Mauerfall zur Wiedervereinigung: Meine Erinnerungen. It is a cri de coeur that Europe, not just the EU, is not well set to confront the challenges of the twenty first century.
Wherever he looks, Kohl sees danger. Peace is far from secure; the Euro faces major challenges; relations with the United States and Canada are not well; tensions grow with Russia, not least over the Ukraine; policy towards Israel and its region are muddled, and Europe’s position relative to China, Asia and Africa is weak. What characterizes Europe’s current leadership, he implies, is a lack of historical sense, courage and vision, and the primacy of the petty in a matter so vital as the EU to Europe’s future.
There is no doubt where Kohl stands on Europe. It is first and foremost a peace project, which seeks to embed freedom, with democracy, respect of human rights, the rule of law, ensure social stability and prosperity, and a sense of responsibility for the rest of the world. The project’s aim must be a united, decentralized, democratic and effective Europe, where decisions are taken close to the immediate concerns of its citizens, and therefore on a federal basis. “No one, Kohl argues, wants concentration of powers in a centralized bureaucratic mammoth institution, which increasingly distances itself from the member states and citizens of Europe,..”.
Equally, there can be no turning back of clocks to the chauvinism of the nineteenth century, against which, he argues, the EU is the best protection. That EU must be federal, and cannot be predicated on “the idea of a lose alliance of independent, sovereign states, without being capped by a political Europe. Such an idea is outdated and no solution. History, he argues with passion, teaches that our continent has suffered long enough under the rivalry of European nations”.
Yet here we are repeating our same old faults. It was Chancellor Adenauer’s fundamental commitment to bind Germany westwards into NATO and the primacy of relations with the United States that made possible the ensuing prosperity of Germany and the creation of the European institutions. This westward orientation, Kohl reminds us, was always heavily contested from 1945 onwards, in the 1980s and at the time of German reunification when Secretary General Gorbachev offered Germany a neutrality status between East and West. But Kohl rejected the offer: “German unity and European unity, he writes, are two sides of the same coin”.
What went wrong? Three key decisions, says Kohl, and all of them taken by the Red Green coalition headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
The first was the inclusion of Greece in the Euro, which Kohl has always opposed. But, he adds, now all we can do is to help Greece help itself.
Second, France and Germany in 2003 were the first to infringe the terms of the Stability and Growth Pact, which was supposed to have underpinned the Euro. This, he implies, set a very bad example by the two countries who had always led the project.
Third, was Schroeder’s rejection of US policy over Iraq in August 2002, pitting Germany against the US for the first time since 1945. All that the US was asking for was German support in the United Nations Security Council against international terrorism, and “the criminal regime in Iraq”.
He could have added a fourth setback, but he does so tangentially, essentially for diplomatic reasons. The Euro, he points out, should have been capped by a political union. But he had had to settle for the Euro first, and the promise of political union later. As we know, in 2005 the French and Dutch electorates both rejected the proposed European Constitution, which held a crucial clause whereby the European Court of Justice’s rulings would take precedence over national laws-a principal that had been first elaborated by the Court in 1964, but had never been spelt out in Treaty form.
A fifth mistake, Kohl argues, has been the western treatment of Russia. In the 1990s, on Kohl’s watch, he bent over backwards to have Russia attached to NATO, brought into membership of the Council of Europe, and included as a partner in peacekeeping operations in ex-Jugoslavia. At the same time, Kohl reminds readers that he was firm in telling President Yeltsin that Russia had no veto over the eastern enlargements of NATO, and then of the EU.
On the Ukraine crisis, both sides, Kohl argues, have made mistakes. But he does not elaborate. What he does pinpoint is his disapproval of western punitive policies to Russia, especially the 2014 decision not to include Russia in the June G-7 meetings, which it had attended in the past in the G-8. Clearly, he considers exclusion an unnecessary slight to Russian pride, and also Putin’s desire for recognition and acceptance.
What does this tour d’horizon say about the state of Europe, and in particular of Kohl’s concerns. The heart of the matter is that Germany is now the sole leader in Europe, and Europe is in serious trouble.
At the end of his acclaimed book, The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clarke compares the way the European leaders wandered into the 1914-18 war, and the crisis in the Euro in 2010. All, he writes, feared the collapse of the Euro, but all had special interests of their own. And they used the possibility of a general catastrophe as leverage in securing their own political advantages (in the case of Germany and France of ensuring that the German and French banks which led ill advisedly to Greece should be bailed out, and that Greece should do the work out).
In other words, Clarke is pointing out that for all the overlay of international institutions, of Brussels, and the permanent discussion that it allows for, the structure and reality of Europe is much closer to that of 1914 than is comfortable.
I agree with this assessment. Kohl’s cri de coeur is well founded. But there are some critiques that should be added. The problem of visionary politics is that its protagonists have their eyes firmly fixed on the far, and even if they are remarkable practitioners of the politics of the here and now, as was Kohl, they can only dimly discern the paths to be taken to their distant goals.
What paths? There was some bien pensant thinking around in “Brussels” that Greece, once in the Euro, would mend its ways. Systems were set up to make corruption more difficult. But in retrospect they were clearly inadequate. More importantly, Greece was brought into membership in the Euro because French diplomacy was unstinting in its efforts to strengthen a coalition of southern states in favour of growth. France finally got its way when Schroeder cynically agreed: cynically, because Schroeder was not a European visionary like Kohl, to say the least. He was and is a nationalist.
In other words, ambitious policies should be launched with the clear probability of future political leaders playing the game. Schroeder did not; nor did President Chirac. The condition for the Euro functioning well was, and is, that France move boldly,(the Euro, French élites had long concluded, was in the French national interest, whereas DM hegemony under the guidance of the Bundesbank was not) to liberalise domestic labour markets, undo the multiple corporatist interests in the country, and sell the idea of liberalized markets not in terms of promoting globalization, or of challenging French identity, but as a supreme national interest.
Chirac backed down from the challenge, as did Presidents Sarkozy and especially Hollande. In the case of President Sarkozy, it was not from want of trying. He tried but the French people were not listening. In the case of Hollande, he lied that Germany would be nudged in favour of growth in order to get elected, and ever since Germany said Nein, as could be expected, he has languished in the opinion polls.
The warnings of course were on the wall in 2003 that things were not going Kohl’s way. Germany and France broke their own rules on growth and stability, but stated that Portugal had to live up to them. In other words, that there were rules for the big powers, but only the smaller, weaker powers had to live by them. The habits of European power politics ran much deeper than Kohl’s vision allowed for.
Along with that came Schroeder’s decision to defy the US over Iraq, thereby playing into the hands of the pro war lobby in Washington. Why so? Because the one hope that the war could be postponed, and perhaps an alternative way out for dealing with a criminal like Saddam, was for the European Union member states to have acted as one. That meant not saying Non to the US because it gave Europe’s inveterate anti-Americans a psychic boost, but because that was the only way for the Europeans to get widespread support in the US Congress for a more careful approach to Iraq, along the lines of George Bush Sr in 1990/91.
The way forward for the EU was for Germany, France and the UK, with Spanish and Polish support(and any others who wished to join) to send 100,000 to 150,000 troops to Kuwait, alongside the US, as a demonstration of support, but also as a ticket to influence in Congress and on the global diplomatic circuit. This was not to be. Schroeder for electoral reasons played the nationalist card against the US( and suddenly discovered that he was getting acclaim not only from his friends of the radical 1970s, but from rather older radicals from the 1930s and 1940s).
Chirac’s response was no more statesmanlike. Seeing that Germany said Nein, his instinctive reaction as a Gaullist was to join Germany in adding a French Non to a German Nein. After all, since the 1950s, France had come to see saying Non to the US as a French monopoly in Europe. Now Germany was stealing the privilege.
The result was that Blair and the UK, plus Spain and the eastern European member states, were left alone in support of the US, while France and Germany bathed in the acclaim of European anti-Americanism. Paradoxically, then it was Schroeder and Chirac who acted against the peace interest, and Blair who proved the most European.
The gathering tide of national resentment against the EU project then bubbled over in France and the Netherlands in their 2005 rejection of the proposed European constitution, which would have capped the Euro, as Kohl wished. The Lisbon Treaty amounted to an attempt to fudge EU realities: the ECJ was mentioned, but so was the fact that its powers were not embedded in any Treaty. In other words, they were no more than a convention. The German Constitutional Court duly adjudged that the EU was no more than an alliance of sovereign member states. Two years later in the 2010 Euro crisis, Germany proclaimed itself No 1, and shed any pretence that France was its co-equal.
Finally, on relations to Russia, Kohl is being slightly ingenuous. He had his reasons for hastening German unity in 1989. But Gorbachev had already announced he would not use force to keep the communists in power in East Germany. By February 1990, as Germany hastened to unity, Gorbachev’s position deteriorated rapidly. In short, by saying German unity was more important than anything else, Kohl helped defenestrate Gorbachev, the man who had made it all possible. He also backed NATO and EU enlargement, admittedly along with a policy of bringing Russia much more intimately into the European home.
As over the Euro, so with German policy to Russia. A visionary policy has to be capable of being administered by subsequent leaderships. In the case of the Ukraine, the EU clearly tried to pull this former heart of Russian nationalism into its own sphere of interest. In 2014, with President Yanukovitch’s overthrow, the Russian bear growled, and this time very loudly. The takeover of Crimea, an evident flouting of European wide rules of the game, is immensely popular in Russia, so much so that President Putin is arguably ceding control of Russian foreign, policy to Russia’s own arch, very dangerous breed of chauvinists.
Where does this leave Kohl? He would be the first to agree that Europe has to be made step by step, that policies have to be realistic, and that the way forward in Europe requires courageous decisions by people who realize that Europe drips with history from every pour.(When I went to the European Commission to talk about INSEAD running a programme on Europe, I asked what the weighting for a week’s course should be. “Give economics half a day”, came the reply, “and three days to the continuing importance of European history”).
The core of Kohl’s worries is that it is this sense of history which is dangerously absent. Unfortunately, Kohl, by original academic training an historian, was arguably too concerned with the vision thing to tread the difficult and narrow path required to ensure the European peace and prosperity. And that is not the same as ensuring the project.