Bigfoot Berlin steps on European toes

Germany's increasing assertiveness, like a plan for a more federal EU this week, irks Britain, France.

When Gerhard Schroder moved into his newly completed home-office this week, the German chancellor did so almost apologetically. After all, the massive white Chancery is eight times the size of the White House.

"We don't need to chisel into stone our self-confidence as a mature nation that wants to stand neither above nor below other peoples," said Mr. Schroder.

It's the kind of comment that's emblematic of Germany's hesitant assertion of its place as not only Western Europe's largest economic power, but also a political force to be reckoned with.

The most visible manifestation of that emerging role is a proposal to transform the European Parliament into a bicameral assembly with an elected government. It's not just the plan itself, but the nation that's making it, that tends to cause unease from London to Vienna.

Among smaller countries, such as Austria, the Schroder proposal raised the specter of a widely-feared "super-state." France and Britain, which both have to reckon with substantial euro-skeptic factions in upcoming national elections, downplayed the paper as one of many proposals to reform the EU.

Supporters say it's only right for Germany to assert itself. In addition to being Europe's economic and industrial powerhouse, with a gross domestic product of $1.8 trillion, it is home to the continent's largest population (near 83 million.) But never far from any debate, is the knowledge that this is the country that launched two world wars in the past century in an attempt to rule its neighbors.

Since the cold war's peaceful end and reunification in 1990, German leaders have faced a peculiar dilemma. If Germany remains inert in the international arena - particularly on security issues - its allies accuse it of shirking its duty. Yet should Germany assume a role in foreign policy more befitting its size and wealth, the country runs the risk of being labeled resurgent.

Since the end of World War II, "it has always been the question whether we get a German Europe or a European Germany," says Ulrike Guerot, a specialist on the EU at the German Society for Foreign Policy in Berlin. In its active push for EU reform, Germany is an easy target. But Dr. Guerot rejects fears that Berlin is seeking dominance through its recent initiatives. "Germany knows perfectly that being alone in Europe would harm Germany in the end. We cannot shoulder the European integration process alone. We need strategic partners," says Guerot. "Whenever Germany stood alone in history, it was bad not only for Europe but also for Germany."

Recent German proposals to federalize the EU, she says, stem from a genuine effort among Berlin's political class to make the 15-country EU more transparent and democratic. All member states agree that institutional reforms are necessary before the EU can expand to encompass a dozen Central and Eastern European aspirant nations.

The Schroder paper, actually a draft proposal subject to approval by the chancellor's Social Democrats at a party congress in November, foresees turning the European Commission into an elected, rather than appointed, body. The Council of Ministers would be transformed into an upper house of parliament, similar to the German Bundesrat. Under the Schroder plan, all budget decisions would go to a more powerful European Parliament, and clearer lines would be drawn between EU and national areas of competence.

A year ago, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer first introduced the idea of a European federation run by a bicameral EU parliament. "The soulless and faceless 'eurocracy' in Brussels is seen as boring at best and dangerous at worst," Mr. Fischer told an audience at a Berlin university. Significantly, he presented his views as an individual and not in his capacity as a foreign minister.

While at first pricking British sensitivities on national sovereignty and French inclination to a centralized state, Fischer's ideas have become a viewpoint widely shared across party lines in Berlin. At a speech a month ago before the European Parliament, German President Johannes Rau reiterated the concept of a bicameral parliament and voiced his support for a federal-style constitution for the EU.

Mr. Rau was careful to emphasize that his proposal was not about forcing German models on other nations. But critics would argue that the European Central Bank, which oversees the common currency, the euro, is modeled on the Bundesbank, and that a bicameral federation sounds exactly like the existing German political order.

Guerot argues that smaller countries, such as Ireland and the Netherlands, have benefitted far more from monetary union than Germany, which has one of the EU's most sluggish economies at the moment. And despite its size, Berlin cannot achieve critical mass for its initiatives without cooperating with traditional partners such as France.

Some commentators have remarked on a new readiness in Berlin to disagree openly with Washington. In a March visit, Schroder was Europe's angry ambassador, following President Bush's rejection of the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gases. Similarly, the German environment minister loudly protested the US government's renewed interest in nuclear power, which Berlin shuns.

When the Bush administration sanctioned supplying Taiwan with submarines last week, Germany - which manufactures the vessels in question - again protested, declaring its adherence to a one-China policy.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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