THE sighs of relief heaved in European capitals when the "yes" vote in the French referendum on the Maastricht Treaty was first projected were especially deep in Bonn.
It has been "an overall relief that it has turned out this way," says a German official.
The 51.05 percent "yes" vote was well below the 54 or 55 percent level that conventional wisdom had deemed necessary for the referendum to be an unqualified "victory for Europe." "It's a slim majority, but it's a majority," the official says. "It's really also very important for the chancellor. It's been a major project for him to achieve German unity under a European roof."
Chancellor Helmut Kohl confidently predicted that "the French referendum will give new impetus to the European unification process," and added he was sure the German Bundestag would ratify the treaty by the end of the year.
Finance Minister Theo Waigel predicted a calming of the financial markets, which have been in upheaval in recent days with high German interest rates boosting the value of the deutsche mark and putting other European currencies under great pressure. Addressing concerns
Mr. Kohl acknowledged certain "concerns" of the people that will receive "our particular attention" during the ratification debate in Germany.
Bjorn Engholm, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, was reported as saying that the narrow majority should be taken as a "warning signal" of concern.
Kohl, who has expended considerable personal political capital campaigning for a French "yes" vote, argued that there is no reasonable alternative to a united Europe; without unification, he said, Europe will just be pushed around, a plaything of world interests.
Being pushed around, however, is what many of the French were concerned about. The Franco-German alliance has been an essential feature of the postwar European political landscape. But it has not been lost on the Germans that in the intense French debate before the referendum, "the German question" was used by both sides.
Vote "non" so that France can avoid being dominated by Germany, treaty opponents said. Vote "oui" so that France can keep an eye on Germany within a united Europe, supporters of the treaty said.
Thus, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper editorialized yesterday, "The French vote cannot be seen simply as a cheerful `Yes to Europe.'"
The more strongly the case is made that the treaty is a good way of controlling Germany, the more concerned Germans are about their national sovereignty. "The people in Europe, especially in Germany, obviously want this Europe, but they also want to maintain their national identity," Foreign Minister Kinkel said, though he said he was not calling for a revision of the treaty.
There has been a good deal of what Jochen Thies, managing editor of the journal Europa Archiv, calls "loose talk" about a German referendum on Maastricht.
Kohl has ruled out such a thing, and Germany has no constitutional mechanism for a referendum. But amending the Constitution has been under much discussion because of concern over the right of asylum. Minimal metaphor
Mr. Thies, meanwhile, puts a somewhat minimalist interpretation on the French vote. Many commentators have used a railroad metaphor: "European unity is on track after Maastricht." Thies invokes another mode of transportation: "The man on the bicycle has managed not to fall over. The question is, how long can he manage to continue without falling over?"
The Maastricht vote, "in real terms, means nothing," he says, "but in psychological terms, it means a lot." With this "yes" vote, "Europeans have got another chance to catch their breath, and try to deal as a whole with certain problems, with Yugoslavia, with the whole question of asylum."
The Kohl government's statement noted, "We confront challenges that cannot be managed with only a national policy.... Economic union without a political union to accompany it would not be viable."
Thies questions the depth of German support for Maastricht. He says he feels instinctively that the Kohl government is right to pursue greater European union. "But polls indicate that the moment you start to sacrifice the deutsche mark [as called for in the treaty's provisions for a single European currency] two-thirds of the support falls away."
Germany, too, is in the midst of another unity process: that of incorporating and rebuilding the former East Germany. Thies also notes that aside from Germany, "There's really very little Western engagement in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe," and he senses some ambivalence about the special German role.
"As a German, you can't get it right. If you try to do something, you're seen to be controlling things." But other nations have largely abandoned these fields to Germany, as he sees it. "This brings out lots of fears ... and makes me skeptical about what we can accomplish.
"The big task is to keep Western Europe together and still do something for the East. You can't just keep Western Europe as an island for the rich."