Germany Takes Stronger Political Lead in Europe

DESPITE all the talk of European unity at the European Community summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, Germany is expressing a new assertiveness in European politics.This is especially true for a subject close to the German heart: Eastern Europe. No other Western ally abuts Eastern Europe to the extent that Germany does, nor has such deep, historical ties with the East. Bonn is therefore alarmed by what it perceives as a slow response by its Western allies to the growing crises in the East, from the Yugoslav civil war to the breakup of the Soviet empire. One government official here, for instance, said Germany was concerned by US powerlessness to aid the republics of the new Commonwealth of Independent States which took over the assets of the Soviet Union. The US economy, he said, is in decline and has no reserves to help the Russians. The most it can do, he said, is call a conference or send surplus grain shipments. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is making it clear that Bonn is going to take the political initiative on Central and Eastern Europe. In January, chairmanship of the Group of Seven industrialized countries will pass to Germany, Mr. Genscher noted at a NATO meeting in Brussels last week. "Germany will use this position to see to it that all of those countries concerned not only recognize their responsibility, but carry it out.... There will be no lack of activities and initiatives coming from the [German] chairmanship," Genscher said proudly. Meanwhile, it was Genscher's tenacity last week that forced a reluctant EC to follow his lead and work out a plan for recognizing the breakaway Yugoslav republics. "We showed them [the EC members], that they could no longer disregard us," said the government official. Germany has been advocating recognition for the breakaway republics of Slovenia and Croatia since the republics declared their independence last summer. In early December, Bonn announced it would recognize them by Christmas, even if the majority of the EC did not go along. Germany also recently flexed its muscles on monetary policy. To fight inflation, the Bundesbank raised interest rates a full percentage point last week. This was against the express wishes of the Americans and other Europeans, who want to keep rates low to help stimulate their sagging economies. The European media, especially the British press, criticized the move. "Germany has served notice that it is still tailoring its economic policies strictly in the interests of one country - itself," wrote the Fin ancial Times in London. Angelika Volle, a specialist on the EC at the German Society for Foreign Affairs, says she expects Germany to become even more assertive, especially in foreign policy. Bonn is giving Europe a lot by sacrificing the deutsche mark for an eventual single European currency. So Germans "will want to have more of a say in politics," says Ms. Volle. German officials say the suggestion that Germany is using European monetary union as a lever to get what it wants in politics is nonsense. They argue that every country has certain pet issues it takes more to heart than other countries do. For Germany, these include Eastern Europe and the domestic economy. For example, they say, Germany was under tremendous pressure from a large Roman Catholic voter base and a Croatian migrant population who wanted recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. Volle speaks for many Germans when she says that Germany only wants to be considered a "normal" country that will not be chastised every time it sticks up for its interests. Germany's recent assertiveness on Yugoslavia was a sign that Germany "is on the way to normalcy," says the government official in Bonn. He points out that Bonn will not be afraid to push the EC toward ever closer ties with Eastern Europe, because stability in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary "is essential to our stability and our survival." Without pressure, he says, "the EC will do nothing." The way Bonn pushes, however, is what Germany's EC partners will be concerned with. Yugoslavia, despite Germany's teaming up with France on the issue, was clearly German strong arming. In a front-page editorial last week, Le Figaro, a conservative French daily, cautioned, "the Europe decided at Maastricht was not a German Europe."

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