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German Reunification and the New Europe

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PARIS – I began writing this column shortly after a remarkable anniversary. October 3, 1989, was the effective date for the implementation of a stunning decision taken barely a month earlier. On August 23, East Germany’s House of Representatives, the Volkskammer, voted for unilateral adherence by the East German Länder to West Germany’s Constitution.

Article 23 of the West German Basic Law permitted this, but neither West Germany’s government nor its Parliament had been consulted!

Reunification terms were subsequently defined in a Treaty signed in Berlin on August 31, 1990, and ratified by both the East and West German parliaments on September 20. The Peace Treaty between the two German states and the four victorious Allies was signed in Moscow on the same day, and reunification was officially proclaimed on October 3.

These events, accomplished by three actors, shook the world – and changed it forever. The first actor was Mikhail Gorbachev, who approved the act – the opening of the border between Austria and Hungary – that triggered the chain of events leading to reunification. And it was Gorbachev who proclaimed that Soviet forces would not intervene to support troubled communist regimes against the will of their people – a declaration aimed directly at East Germany.

The second key figure was West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who rushed into the opened breach, overriding his Allies’ caution, while the third actor was the East German people, who rushed into the streets, regardless of the risks, to demonstrate and push reunification forward.

These events had a profound impact on relations between Germany and its allies. The United States, Great Britain, and France all seemed to think that everything was happening too fast, that international security was at risk should the new Germany not confirm its membership in NATO (which Germany finally did). But for a few months, there were fears that Russia would demand Germany’s withdrawal from the Alliance as a condition of its agreement to reunification.

While the US masked its doubts, Great Britain and France were less at ease. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher limited herself to worried public statements, but French President François Mitterrand felt it necessary to improvise a visit to East Berlin, against the opinion of his Foreign Ministry and despite the French people’s great enthusiasm for German reunification. Mitterrand hoped to slow the process and to link negotiations to some international guarantees. His effort was a fiasco, remembered in Berlin to this day.

The motive of Mitterrand’s “mission” was to determine what precautions could or should be taken against the potential vagaries of this powerful but unpredictable people. The response was eventually enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, which extended the European Union’s competences to foreign affairs and judicial matters, making them partly supranational.

Great Britain and Denmark, however, insisted that these new competences be exercised on intergovernmental grounds only, not by the European Commission, and thus only through consensus. France did not vote, so Great Britain and Denmark won by default. Europe would take common action related to foreign affairs only on unanimous grounds. Political Europe was stillborn at the moment of greatest potential.

This was a major disappointment for Germany, particularly as it could no longer count on France, its main ally in Europe. In Germany itself, failure to achieve a politically integrated federal Europe baffled pro-integration political forces and dented the war generation’s moral authority. The New Germany and its post-war generation felt tempted to recover a reunified, yet lonely, German identity, one with influence in Europe and worldwide. As a result, reunified Germany naturally fell back on its old sphere of dominance, Eastern Europe.

But Germany’s leaders were uneasy with these changes. In September 1994, two MPs from the majority Christian Democratic Union published a political statement on Europe, questioning its future, particularly the prospect of federalism. A dismal silence greeted its publication, which left Germany’s pro-European establishment isolated and dispirited.

Indeed, in May 2000, Joschka Fischer, the ex-leader of the Green Party and German Foreign Minister, gave a long speech about the necessity of European integration. The question about European federalism was posed to all member states, and none answered. France, obviously in the limelight, remained silent, again leaving Germany to feel abandoned by its partners.

A process of erosion, catalyzed by British diplomacy, was under way. It succeeded. The prospect of genuine European integration on foreign affairs and defense issues was denied time and again, at each step of the successive negotiations for the Treaties of Amsterdam, Nice, the aborted constitutional project, and Lisbon.

Time passed, generations changed. In today’s Germany, because no one with decisive power in business, finance, or government experienced the war, the European project is no longer viewed as conditioning Europe’s collective future. These new leaders envision Europe only as a trade regime. Meanwhile, German diplomacy is actively reconstructing the country’s economic and cultural spheres of influence, and not only in Eastern Europe.

The impact of this lost European perspective became clear in the autumn of 2008 when, in the aftermath of the sub-prime crisis and the failure of Lehman Brothers, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first impulse was nationalistic and wholly anti-European. There would be no common European plan to address the crisis, and no call for public funds. Germany would protect its banks’depositors on its own and through private means. Only the sheer gravity of the situation brought Germany back within the European realm for the subsequent G-20 meeting.

Twenty years after reunification was completed, Germany has become one of the world’s great democracies. Many wish that it were also more European in its outlook and behavior. But Germany does not bear the main responsibility for killing off the vision of political Europe.

Michel Rocard, Prime Minister of France at the time of German reunification, is a former leader of the French Socialist Party.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010

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