Bonn disillusioned with Brussels as disputes increase

 

This week's inauguration of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt had a familiar feel about it as the continent's political and economic establishment came to praise the ideal of European co-operation and the prosperity they hope it will bring.

There, as usual, was the Chancellor, Dr Helmut Kohl, watching the proceedings like a proud parent at a school sports day and waxing eloquent about the bright, economic dawn the euro will herald.

But neither the smiles and applause nor the clatter of Riverdance feet on the stage of Frankfurt's opera house could conceal the fact that there has been a sharp change of mood in Germany where Europe is concerned. As Bonn and Brussels engage in new disputes each week, even Dr Kohl has abandoned his old, visionary rhetoric in favour of sniping at the overweening ambition of the EU Commission.

Bonn has been at odds with Brussels in recent months over everything from a ban on tobacco advertising to subsidies for car factories in eastern Germany. After years as the driving force towards deeper integration, Germany has changed its tune to call for greater decentralisation.

"The Commission concerns itself too much with details. The member-states can do that better," according to Mr Herbert Jacoby, Head of European Affairs at Bonn's Economics Ministry.

Dr Kohl's supporters in big business and industry are furious at the actions of Mr Karel van Miert, the EU Commissioner in charge of keeping competition fair within the single European market. He blocked an alliance between two German media giants, Bertelsmann and Kirch, and forced Volkswagen to repay subsidies to the German government.

Germany's growing disillusionment with Europe is reflected in the number of cases before the European Court accusing Bonn of breaching EU treaties. Out of 121 cases last year, 19 were against Germany, more than any country except Italy. Five years ago, when Germany was still the model child in the EU classroom, it faced only four.

Dr Kohl's advisers dismiss the charge that he has become a Eurosceptic and point out that the principle of subsidiarity whereby decisions are taken at the lowest possible level is agreed by all member-states.

But this argument does not explain the increasingly strident demands by Dr Kohl and his Finance Minister, Mr Theo Waigel, for a cut in Bonn's contribution to the EU budget. Bavaria's Prime Minister, Mr Edmund Stoiber, whose sceptical views on Europe were until recently regarded as extreme, is now comfortably within the German mainstream on the issue.

Some of Bonn's new, bellicose noises on Europe may be explained by the fact that a federal election is only three months away and Euro-enthusiasts predict a return to traditional harmony as soon as Germany takes over the EU presidency in January 1999.

As Germany's economy re covers, there are already signs of a slight softening in popular attitudes towards Europe and an opinion poll this week showed a majority in favour of the euro for the first time.

Dr Kohl's Social Democratic challenger, Mr Gerhard Schroder, has long been regarded as unsympathetic to European integration. But he has sounded more friendly towards Europe in recent weeks, even signalling that more integration was necessary.

"More and more problems can only be solved on a European level, such as securing fair competition and establishing minimum norms for company tax and social welfare," he said.

Mr Schroder has appointed the party chairman, Mr Oskar Lafontaine, a committed integrationist, as his spokesman on European affairs, an indication that a change of government will not necessarily mean a retreat from Europe.

If, as opinion polls predict, Mr Schroder defeats Dr Kohl in September, his ideological affinity with Britain's Mr Tony Blair and France's Mr Lionel Jospin may even boost the European project so closely associated with the chancellor of German unity.