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Helmut Kohl’s European legacy: A duty and an obligation for the future

Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 28 June 2017

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Helmut Kohl was, from the word go, a modern conservative, who freed his party, the CDU, from being a party of worthies. He was at the same time a passionate European all his days. Under his successors, however, the CDU, gaze narrowed to focus on austerity, has moved away from Kohl’s legacy in European policy. If there is to be a European ceremony in Strasbourg to honour the deceased former Chancellor – and it is entirely right that there should be – then it should be more than just an opportunity to pay our last respects. It should also be an occasion to look back on Helmut Kohl’s political legacy and use it as the basis for a fresh start in European policy. Especially within his own party, the CDU. 

Helmut Kohl belonged to the so-called “Flakhelfer” generation, those children born around 1930 who lost their childhood in the gun emplacements and carried the burden of their emotional wounds for the rest of their lives.

Helmut Kohl frequently explained his politics with references to his own story, thus bringing them closer to the people. Notwithstanding all the differences in our views, I always regarded his policies as an attempt to renounce once and for all aggressive German nationalism. François Mitterrand’s statement “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre!” was also the guiding principle of Helmut Kohl’s policy on Europe. A Germany integrated into Europe was to be for ever impregnated against the temptations of know-it-all condescension and power cravings. Germany became a republic and Helmut Kohl the co-founder of a party which later, under his leadership, was unreservedly pro‑European. For years now, the CDU has increasingly lost sight of this clear orientation in its policy on Europe, thereby not only endangering the legacy of its former Chancellor, but also risking the continuities of German foreign policy.

In the Kohl era, European integration was the absolute guiding principle for all foreign-policy activity, just as the integration into the circle of Western democracies was under Konrad Adenauer, and Ostpolitik under Willy Brandt. Once Germany was firmly anchored in the West and peace had been established in the East, Kohl set to work to deepen European integration. Helmut Schmidt had done some excellent preliminary work, formulating the vision of a “European Political Union” and advocating direct elections to the European Parliament. He proposed the application of the majority principle in the Council of Ministers, as well as the enlargement of the European Community to include Greece, Spain and Portugal. Together with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he ensured the introduction of a European Monetary System. 

Helmut Kohl used Helmut Schmidt’s initiatives and ground-laying work as the foundation for his policy of European integration. In his very first policy statement, in the autumn of 1982, he placed the issue of German reunification in a European context, referring to a central principle of the then old and new Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher: “German policy is European peace policy.”

In this context, Franco-German relations were always of especial importance. Even before German reunification, Kohl and the Socialist François Mitterrand initiated the Franco-German Brigade.

With reunification, Helmut Kohl showed an impressive dynamism in setting out the markers for European policy. The Treaty of Maastricht establishing economic and monetary union and the Treaty of Amsterdam finally cleared the way for the euro and made the EU’s eastern enlargement a task for his successors. Helmut Kohl thus created the framework for the integration of the countries of eastern Europe. The integration of the former members of the Warsaw Pact into the Euro-Atlantic alliances marked the successful reunification of a Europe which had been long divided. The SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder followed the path to the future set out for him by Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. The year 2004 saw the EU’s eastern enlargement, with Schröder emphasising that the “dream of many generations in Europe is coming true”. That same year, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia acceded to the European Union. They were later followed by Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, the most recent new members.

Since then, the dynamism towards integration has blown itself out; ambitions for further EU enlargement have, as it were, been put on ice. Then Europe’s real crisis began, on Wall Street, with the global financial crisis. That was the moment when the European debate in Germany began to be dominated – as indeed it still is – by discussion of the sense or otherwise of aid packages and bail-outs and of austerity policy proposals. In conservative circles there were even renewed calls for a return to the Deutschmark. Instead of courageously standing up for European cohesion and opposing the financial markets’ speculations against the euro, politicians shifted responsibility for the crisis to the European Central Bank – subsequently only to publicly criticise the measures it introduced. Basically it was representatives of precisely that formerly pro-European CDU who were fanning the fears of financial policy disaster in Germany. The myth of Germany as the packhorse of the EU – as persistent as it is stupid – came to life again. And the Germans were persuaded that they had to be protected from becoming the paymaster for the lazy countries of Europe.

Ultimately this turned into a veritable national political tale about Europe designed to win votes at home. Electioneering at the expense of Europe? – that would never have happened to Helmut Kohl. Of course, he too would, rightly, have demanded that the countries in crisis in the EU make efforts towards reform. But he would not have accompanied his demands with this fateful national narrative: in exchange for reforms, rather, he would have offered Germany’s help. And he would have told the German people the truth: that we have to invest in Europe in the interests of our children and grandchildren. And that there will only be enough jobs in Germany if things are going well for our neighbours too. After all, we export 60 percent of our goods and services within the European Union and only 10 percent to China or the US.

Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl and also Gerhard Schröder would have known, too, that there might be situations in which Germany needs its neighbours’ help. And so that big Germany does get such help, all Federal Chancellors have built up a bank of goodwill with the smaller EU member states. Helmut Kohl was able to make history with German unification because the world trusted him when he said that reunited Germany never wanted to dominate anyone ever again; that good-neighbourliness is a given that is expressed in friendship and a willingness to help; that Europe is a project of equals for equals – and not a matter of poor and rich, big and small.

Much of this bank of goodwill had been used up by the time the refugee crisis flared up. Instead of helping Germany to manage the intake of refugees, even countries like France gave us the cold shoulder. In many EU member states, Germany has long since become a national opponent.

It might help us to extricate ourselves from these nationalist tales about Europe if we concentrate once again on the principles underpinning Kohl’s European integration policy. His policy was based not on condescension, but on mutual consideration, because in matters of European integration he stood for a Germany which was deliberately unassuming and which sought a fair accommodation of interests.

Helmut Kohl was always aware that Germany’s role in Europe and the world was embedded in confidence in his restrained, reliable and reconciling actions. That in itself is reason enough for us to take care that this residual bank of trust built up by Kohl’s policy on Europe is not completely eaten up by the enthusiasm for austerity of the conservative spectrum in Germany. The “European spirit” which is still alive and well should not be determined either by the financial markets or by finance ministers. Quite simply, know-it-all calls for reforms do not increase acceptance of German policy in Europe; all they do is benefit populist movements on the right and left in the countries concerned – as we have been painfully reminded in the past few years. Only our resolute political engagement can prevent the continent from drifting apart. The UK’s departure and the nationalist trends in some EU member states are harbingers and repercussions of a disintegration in Europe which must not be allowed to develop any more dynamism.

We miss Helmut Kohl’s voice today, because he knew that a strategic generosity in politics pays off more than distrustful pettiness. Helmut Kohl’s deep-seated commitment to the European project was accompanied by a huge willingness to make compromises for the good of all. This attitude made him a great European. In this respect we should adopt him as an example once again, so as to be able to successfully complete the integration of Europe, that once-in-a-century project.

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