WHEN Germany assumed the rotating European Union presidency, eurocrats hoped the Germans would steer the Continent toward accelerated political and economic cooperation.
But halfway through Bonn's six-month tenure, Europe's ``motor,'' as Chancellor Helmut Kohl describes Germany, has backfired badly on several occasions.
First came the awkward search this summer to name a head of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch. And most recently, German policymakers came under attack for proposing multispeed EU integration. The plan and the subsequent outcry has thrown the process outlined by the Maastricht Treaty on European Union into disarray.
``The German EU presidency seems to be star-crossed,'' political commentator Udo Bergdoll wrote in the liberal Suddeutsche Zeitung daily. ``It [Germany] ventured into uncharted territory and got lost - like an elephant in a china shop.''
The controversy began Sept. 1, when a top leader of the Germany's governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Wolfgang Schauble, presented a party position paper on European union. In it, Mr. Schauble said a ``hard core'' of European nations - Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands - should lead the way in integrating political and economic institutions. Others in the 12-member EU should follow, the paper stated.
Schauble's idea isn't new, yet those left outside the hard core, especially Italy and Britain, reacted angrily. Even some nations in the proposed inner circle replied frostily. French officials originally floated similar ideas but have since backed off.
``I do not ask that the 12 be disassociated. I think that Portugal or Ireland merit as much as Germany and France to be part of this Europe,'' French President Francois Mitterrand said in a Sept. 12 television interview.
Meanwhile in Germany, which is in the midst of an acrimonious election campaign, the opposition Social Democrats assailed their CDU rivals for supposedly damaging national interests. But Schauble has refused to back down from the plan, saying it has provoked long-needed debate on the EU's future. ``We can't gear the speed of integration to the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy,'' he said.
Chancellor Kohl has also refused to explicitly disassociate himself from the plan. In a recent Bundestag debate, the chancellor maintained that without the ``motor'' driving the EU, the ``process of Maastricht might not reach a successful conclusion.''
Germany and France so far have been the catalysts in the experiment to establish a federal Europe. If successfully implemented according to Maastricht guidelines, the EU would merge economic and political institutions, creating a common currency and foreign policy.
That would, the theory holds, pave the way for an unprecedented epoch of peace and prosperity on the Continent.
But now, with the cold war consigned to history books, the old EU framework needs reworking to make it more relevant to the EU's citizens, says Klaus Hansch, the president of the European Parliament, the EU's representative body. Mr. Hansch is a German Social Democrat.
The EU's reevaluation is scheduled to occur during a 1996 intergovernmental conference. In the meantime, the cause isn't served by Schauble's suggestion, Hansch maintained.
``There is a high measure of uncertainty over what the EU is and isn't - what it should be and shouldn't be,'' Mr. Hansch said in a Sept. 12 lecture in Bonn. ``The heads and hearts of people won't be won over by debates on [the EU's] institutional organization.''
A key to the EU's smooth passage into the post-cold-war era will be united Germany's ability to convince its neighbors that it does not seek to overly dominate Europe. That won't be so easy to achieve, as many nations still harbor suspicions arising from the fact that Germany unleashed two world wars in the 20th century.
And Schauble's position paper does more to reinforce those suspicions than to allay them, some say.
``Europe has fallen again under the jackboot of the hypernationalist [German] bloc, the heirs of the Prussian aristocracy,'' Umberto Bossi - leader of Italy's Northern League, which belongs to the Italian governing coalition - said about Schauble's suggestions.
Not everything has gone badly for the German EU presidency. On Sept. 8, a German-led meeting of the 12 EU members - along with 14 other nations, including formerly Communist Central European nations, the United States, and Canada - agreed to coordinate efforts on fighting drug trafficking and international organized crime.