Call it the paradox of the reluctant giant. Germany, led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, is throwing its considerable weight around to ensure that the European Union's future, and especially the launch of a common currency, comes out in accord with German wishes.
Why? Because, mindful of history, German leaders don't want Germany to dominate Europe for the third time this century - certainly not by force.
The paradox of a nation trying to save others from itself lies in the desire of most German politicians that certain interests of European nations must be contained within a larger unity. No one country dominates, all cooperate. This often puts Germany at odds with other European partners who tend to put their own interests first.
Now, in a dispute with newly elected French Socialists over the proposed euro currency, Germany appears to be coming out ahead. A summit tomorrow with France's new prime minister may again test Germany's leadership in Europe.
To ensure that the euro remains as inflation-resistant as possible once it is launched, the Kohl government got the other 14 EU member countries to accept a stringent "stability pact" in Dublin last December. Part of the pact includes a provision for imposing fines on countries that let their fiscal discipline relax once the currency is launched (Jan. 1, 1999, according to the official plan). The pact was to be finally approved at the EU's Amsterdam summit June 16 and 17.
But on Monday, Lionel Jospin, the new French Socialist prime minister, called for a timeout. Elected on the strength of promises to put job creation and economic growth ahead of inflation-fighting, he asked for time to review the pact, indicating that France would not be in a position to approve it in Amsterdam.
"Euro delay!" was the message flashed around Europe.
But after immense pressure not only from Mr. Kohl, but from Dutch premier Wim Kok and three other heads of government, as well as French President Jacques Chirac, Mr. Jospin has come round, allowing that the stability pact could be approved in Amsterdam after all.
And in return, Kohl, who has stood virtually alone in insisting that unemployment is a national, not EU, policy responsibility, has acknowledged that some kind of EU jobs program could be acceptable, as long as it required no additional funding. After all, German unemployment has been at record highs for much of the past year and a half, and the long-term trend appears to be heading upward.
Kohl and Jospin will meet for the first time in Poitiers, France, tomorrow, along with Mr. Chirac, in one of the regular Franco-German summits held to ensure bilateral harmony before meetings of all 15 EU members.
Kohl will arrive in Poitiers politically weakened by events at home over the last few weeks, notably the debacle over revaluing gold reserves and the continuing budget strife.
On a good day, the 14-year-old coalition government over which Kohl presides creaks audibly. On other days, such as earlier this week, party spokesmen spend much of their time denying reports of resignations, calls for new elections, and possible grand coalition governments. "It would be misleading to call it a crisis, but the coalition is definitely in trouble," says a diplomatic observer here.
By contrast, Jospin has the luxury of a fresh electoral mandate. But he, too, is under pressure to balance campaign promises, however sincerely meant, with the need to restructure the economy. "I've known him for years," says Karsten Voigt, foreign-policy spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats in Germany. "He's a pro-European and he's an economic realist."
For Valrie Gurin-Sendelbach, an expert on Franco-German relations at the German Society for Foreign Policy here, "the key issue will not be the stability pact, but what kind of economic policy the French government pursues" - job creation or structural reform.
The French have also proposed an "informal economic council" to supervise the European Central Bank. And while this has been long-resisted by Germany, "if this council is informal enough, I think the Germans could accept it," Ms. Gurin-Sendelbach suggests.
A moral responsibility
Mr. Voigt, like other observers, expresses modest hope that next week's conference, focusing on the reform of the EU's institutions to enable it to expand eastward, will achieve some incremental successes.
This expansion is a particular moral responsibility for Germany, says Voigt. "We owe our reunification in part to the democratic movements of Eastern Europe."
Voigt expresses confidence that the euro will be introduced on time - through exactly the compromising and incrementalism which, he says, have made it hard for Americans to take the idea seriously in the first place.
Certainly Kohl has staked his political life on the euro. He has insisted that it be launched on time - and he has insisted that it be launched with the stringent "stability criteria" so important to the public here.
Purity of heart is to will one thing, said the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Is Kohl risking his dream by wanting two things? "There is a unity in the contradiction," Voigt suggests. It's another case of translating "the vision thing" into European incrementalism. "You insist on a timely start, and you insist on stability criteria, and in the end you get a euro launched more or less on time, and more or less stable."
Kohl may well be in the twilight phase of his career. But on the long evenings in the weeks before the summer solstice, residents of these northern latitudes are reminded just how long a twilight can last.