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.
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.”