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Germany Muscles In | The Nation

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Germany Muscles In

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At the turn of the year, the Western media, like latter-day Columbuses, suddenly discovered that Europe was speaking with an increasingly strong German accent. Their surprise was surprising. For quite a time it has been obvious that the cliché about Germany being an economic giant and a political dwarf, ephemeral by definition, was by now obsolete [see "Herr Kohl's New Economic Order," August 13/20, 19901. The reunification, while temporarily an economic burden, is bound to increase still further the great weight of Germany at the heart of Europe.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

But this ultimate signal of the end of the cold war had another political consequence. As long as the world was divided in two and West Germany, in the frontline of the capitalist camp, considered that it required the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its protection, it could not lead a West European alliance likely to question the American domination. The division, however, disappearing, Germany emerged as a potential federator of the European Economic Community. Furthermore, since Realpolitik, too, abhors the void, the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union now means that Germany is destined to play a key role not only in the western half of Europe but, to borrow the Gaullist expression inspired by nineteenth-century textbooks, "from the Atlantic to the Urals."

The news finally hit the Western headlines because on a single day, December 19, Bonn (or should one now say again Berlin?) chose to show twice, with ostentation, Its hegemonic posture. The first example was a confirmation of its economic might. Earlier that month, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, the members of the E.E.C. decided that by the end of the millennium they will form a monetary union, adopt a common currency and inaugurate a joint central bank modeled on the Bundesbank. Meanwhile, they were to reinforce their financial collaboration. Yet within ten days, without warning and for its own reasons (which were connected with reunification: to strengthen the mark; to combat inflation, now running at 4 percent; and to weaken the hand of the unions in wage negotiations), Germany raised its lending rates by half a percent, to a level unprecedented since the mark was restored after the war. Countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, whose currencies are directly tied to the mark, had to fall into line on this occasion; but allegedly more independent members of the European Monetary System (E.M.S.), like Italy and France, were also shaken. When the U.S. Federal Reserve Board then moved in the opposite direction and broke a twenty-seven-year-old record by cutting its discount rate to 3.5 percent, the pressures on E.M.S. currencies proved too strong to resist. France, in particular, had to follow Germany upward, although with unemployment reaching 10 percent of the labor force it had no need for a tighter policy. Germany's partners are thus painfully learning that they live virtually in the mark area, where the prevailing rule is that "everybody is out of step but Helmut."

The second example, the diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, was political and more symbolic. I will not enter here into a discussion of the respective merits of Serbian and Croatian nationalism (for me both are repellent or, as Heine put it in German, alle beide stinken). Relevant for our argument is the way the Germans twisted the arms of their E.E.C. allies on this issue. For all sorts of reasons, having to do with the feelings of German tourists, who take holidays on the Dalmatian coast, and the political pressure of Croatian immigrant workers in Germany, but also with the fact that the two republics had been and will soon again be within Its sphere of influence, Germany was in a hurry to recognize them, whereas Britain and France were not.

Indeed, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German Foreign Minister, told the outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, and by proxy Secretary of State James Baker, in rather undiplomatic terms what he thought of their strictures against prompt recognition. Faced with such German passion, the British and the French caved in. After all, in Maastricht the Twelve had Just waffled about the coordination of their foreign policies and this was, therefore, not the moment for a spectacular split. And so a council of foreign ministers of the E.E.C. was summoned, and it proclaimed that the breakaway Yugoslav republics would be recognized by the community on January 15, provided they fulfilled the newly defined conditions, including democratic principles and respect for ethnic minorities and established frontiers. Even this was not enough for Herr Genscher: The German government announced its recognition of Croatia and Slovenia without waiting for the European formalities. What is significant here is not that the Germans carried the day, which they have often done in the past. It is that they no longer bother to conceal their arrogance.

On reflection, it is wrong to speak of a German accent. Like the British or the French, the Germans too can speak with different voices and varying accents. What we are hearing today, and what insures their rise within the E.E.C., is not the voice of Goethe or Marx; it is that of Bismarck and the Bundesbank. If Germany now has a dominant position within the community, it is largely because of its industrial and monetary might. It is also because it is the champion of capitalist financial orthodoxy and, therefore, its ascendancy tells us a great deal about the evolution of the E.E.C. in the past fifteen years or so. The Maastricht meeting, with its painfully reached projections into the future, is a good moment to take stock.

By the end of this year the E.E.C. should have a single market with no internal customs barriers. By the end of the decade it should have a single currency, the ecu, which logically should lead to a common economic policy. Admittedly, it is not known how many of the members will by then have passed the "convergence tests." (Will Britain be willing? Will Italy and Spain, let alone Greece and Portugal, be able to join at once?) The shape is thus uncertain, but the direction is not: Although the word was not actually used, Western Europe is headed toward some form of federation. Its makers share the common wisdom, prevailing everywhere except in the former Soviet Union, that the age belongs to big ensembles, not to medium-sized nation-states, and that Western Europe must unite to compete with the United States and Japan.

The paradox, and the reason the whole venture will be in doubt until the unification is fully completed, is that this dismantling of the nation-states will be, until the end, the work of those very states or, more precisely, of the governments and their big-business backers. The striking feature of the European construction is that it is being carried out entirely from above, with no real participation of the people. The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, has scarcely more powers than had the Supreme Soviet prior to Gorbachev, and Europe's citizens barely bother to vote to send deputies to this talkfest. The only rank-and-file workers with a direct influence on the shaping of policy are peasants on their tractors protesting price policies. In Brussels the labor unions are merely a lobby-one that can hardly compete with the various employers' federations.

The fate in Maastricht of the so-called Social Charter is symptomatic. This attempt to harmonize labor legislation was not written into the amended Rome Treaty. Because of British objections, the remaining Eleven included it as an additional protocol and their spokespersons insisted that nothing would be done to scare potential investors. Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, summed it all up in his press conference: "What we wish to do is to have a minimum amount of legislation to show to the workers of the community that we are looking after them."

Sticking to the linguistic metaphor, it may be suggested that what is being built is a German-dominated Europe with a slightly American accent. In recent years Europe has seen a rush toward deregulation, a shift of emphasis from public to private. Only for a spell, when François Mitterrand was elected President in 1981, did French Socialists try to put full employment above financial orthodoxy. Their total surrender a couple of years later marked the triumph of German finance. Now, when a European government tries to invest in a public enterprise in order to restructure a sector of the economy, it is told off by Brussels in the name of "fair competition" and often prevented from acting.

The function of the central authority seems to be to insure the profitability of private enterprise. Admittedly, in terms of public health, education or unemployment benefits, Western Europe is still miles ahead of the United States, but it is moving backward. This is why it can be argued that even if it should gain its independence--undoubtedly a big if--the Western Europe that is now being built will remain "Americanized," that is to say it will fail to forge a different kind of society.

To which some would reply, But the West Europeans are happy with what they get, because of their growing prosperity. That assertion is no longer quite true. The third of a century that the E.E.C. has existed so far can be neatly divided into two parts. Between 1958 and the economic crisis of the mid-1970s Western Europe experienced an unprecedented growth in output and living standards. Since then the pace has slackened and the contrast between the two periods is much sharper in Europe than in the United States. Very roughly, in Western Europe the rate of growth was halved and that of unemployment trebled. Twenty years ago the very idea that joblessness might afflict 10 percent of the labor force in the E.E.C. would have been considered absurd and, if that absurdity were to happen, bound to provoke a revolution. If the West Europeans feel prosperous today it is only by comparison with their southern or eastern neighbors and, if they now accept what once seemed unacceptable, it is because they have been provisionally convinced that there is no alternative.

Indeed, the biggest transformation in the past fifteen years or so has been ideological. Keynes has been replaced as the guru of the establishment by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. With the labor unions shrinking and suffering a series of defeats, the old rules of class collaboration have been discarded as the New Right and the employers have moved on the offensive. Privatization has been hailed as a universal cure and the sanctity of the market celebrated with the passion of born-again Mancunians. To crown it all, the collapse first of the Soviet empire and then of the Union allowed our prophets to proclaim the eternal reign of capitalism.

Those who rightly object that Reagan and Thatcher are gone and the line is altering fail to observe that the battleground itself has been shifted miles to the right. Consensus politics, that is to say the denial of class conflict, has now invaded the whole of Western Europe, and such transformations were hound to affect the E.E.C. The Rome Treaty, after all, was a product of the cold war. The idea was to build an economic area capable of standing up to the Soviet Union, of tying the Federal Republic to the West, but also of integrating countries in which capitalism was being questioned, like France and Italy. The founding fathers--Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi and Robert Schuman--could be proud today of their achievement. The former Soviet empire is a Wild East fully opened to a capitalist invasion, Germany is über alles, France is fully converted and Italy is in the process of normalization.

What is being described here is not just "a retreat from Moscow.'' It is the political and ideological defeat of the whole Western left. The Communist parties, because of their Stalinist past, have totally lost their bearings and the bulk of their power. The Socialist parties have been completely integrated into the system. Judging by the performance of Mitterrand's Socialists or the policies of Neil Kinnock's Labor Party, they have no alternative project whatever to offer. The New Left has nearly vanished. But to reach rock bottom is not necessarily to start the rise back to the surface.

All that can be said is that the European left has little time and must get used to entirely new surroundings. The days when the medium-sized nation-state could serve at least as the first provisional platform of radical transformation are running out. By the beginning of the new millennium it will be as utopian to imagine a major social experiment limited, say, to France or to Britain as it is today to contemplate the building of socialism in Lancashire or Lombardy, in Vermont or Wisconsin alone.

The parties and labor unions in Europe thus have not only to reinvent their project but also to give it at once an international dimension, on the Western European scale to begin with. They must tell the people how they Intend to build Europe from below, a Europe of citizens and producers, of citizen-producers. For this purpose It is not enough to evolve new forms of ownership and democracy at the workplace. It is necessary to reconcile the democracy in the district, the region and the nation with the self-organization of society on the European scale. This, incidentally, is in the long run the only effective way to deal with the tide of nationalism spreading from the East.

The recent relative success of the Greens is, naturally, a hint that in its productivist passion the left had a blind spot on the environment. But it is also a hopeful sign that people do not live by gadgets alone, that they may be inspired by projects of global change in life and society.

On the other hand, the rise in Europe of national fronts and leagues, of various jingoistic movements fed by fear and prejudices is a warning that, should the capitalist consensus collapse, In the absence at present of a progressive alternative, dark forces are waiting in the wings. It is a reminder that such forces of unreason are not the exclusive curse of Teheran or Algiers, that they now haunt Europe from the Atlantic to Urals.

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