Western Europe is looking into an uncertain future. The German election, which was supposed to clear the horizon, has really obstructed the view. True, Helmut Kohl did get his fourth mandate, as tactical switching by some of his Christian Democrat supporters enabled his allies, the Free Democrats, to clear the 5 percent barrier. But a recovery by the Social Democrats, a return to the Bundestag of the Greens and a spectacular debut in Berlin of the ex-Communist “Red Socks,” the Party of Democratic Socialism, combined to produce a 6.7 percent swing to the left compared with the previous election. With a ten-seat majority in the lower house and with the upper, the Bundesrat, dominated by the Social Democrats, Herr Kohl is not even assured of completing his four-year term. If we add to the German results the unexpected element of suspense injected into the French presidential poll next spring by the infighting on the right, and the new doubts about the political longevity of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, now under investigation on corruption charges, the future makeup of political leadership in Western Europe does look puzzling. Yet beyond such electoral calculations lie bigger questions about the size and shape of the European Community and the degree of its integration and independence.
The European Union still has only twelve members. On January 1 it will be joined by the Austrians, the Finns, the Swedes and, if they also vote yes in a referendum, the Norwegians. The Hungarians and Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks are already at the door, though, considering the costs their admission would impose on the union’s key budgets of agriculture and development aid, they may spend a long time in the waiting room. Whatever the case, the sharp increase in the E.U.’s membership, if unaccompanied by a strengthening of its institutions, will turn it into a sort of loose free-trade area, an aim that the British, backed by the Americans, always had in mind. But, headed by Germany, now undoubtedly the main actor on the continent, the Europeans may also move in the opposite direction, resuming the Maastricht road toward closer financial and political integration.
The most important event since the fall of the Berlin wall was indeed the reunification of Germany. With a population of more than 80 million, a growing economic potential and no longer any need for the American nuclear umbrella, Germany strengthened its dominant position at the heart of Europe. This supremacy was confirmed at once: What was good for the Bundesbank became the prescription for the Community as a whole, even if its tight money policy both precipitated the currency crisis of the summer of 1993 and lengthened the depression. However, it was not quite clear what use Germany would make of its enhanced power. Would it lean to the East or to the West? The answer seems to be both ways.
Germany seems determined, once the former East Germany is fully absorbed,’to resume at full speed its “drive to the East,” the economic invasion through Czech, Polish and Hungarian territory ultimately up to the Urals. But that does not mean that Bonn has abandoned its firm support for the integration of Western Europe. In a policy paper published before the election, Herr Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union suggested that since all E.U. members will not, before the year 2000, be able to pass the “convergence tests,” which establish a country’s eligibility to join the monetary union (the criteria include a maximum inflation rate, maximum tolerated levels of foreign trade and budgetary deficit, and an acceptable ratio of public debt to gross national product), those that can do so should move ahead on their own. The paper specifically mentioned the original’ six members of the E.E.C. minus Italy–in other words, Germany, France and the Benelux countries.
This conception of a two-tier Europe is, naturally enough, resented by those reduced to second rank, notably Britain, Italy and Spain. Yet even the French establishment is of two minds about what it calls a “Europe with variable geometry”: It wants to cling to Germany but it does not wish to be stuck in a small area dominated by the German mark, a kind of northern league without France’s Mediterranean partners. We shall see next year how the various countries jockey for position as they prepare for the 1996 conference, which will consider revisions in the Treaty of Maastricht.