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Europe: The Good Bribe

  • 2000-01-27
  • By Gwynne Dyer
"It was not a bribe," said the anonymous source. "The money was for the election campaign. It was paid in the interest of the state – for Europe." But it was French money, paid out to influence a German election.

It began as a juicy scandal in German politics: Helmut Kohl, chancellor for 16 years and only a year out of office, had been taking big, unregistered donations from unnamed sources. For the past two months the German media have talked about little else – but the rest of the world mostly ignored it. That's now changing, for the German scandal has gone international.

The story was broken late last week by the German television network ARD, in an international co-production with the French state-owned channel France Deux. Both networks allege that in the run-up to the 1994 German election, a cliff-hanger that the Christian Democratic Union won by the slimmest of margins, France's late President Francois Mitterrand personally authorised the payment of 30 million deutschmarks ($15.5 million) to Kohl's party to ensure that he stayed chancellor for a fourth term.

But consider the context. If Kohl had not won the 1994 election, then the European Union would have remained a glorified customs union forever. The EU's huge lurch forward into a common currency, with the inevitable (though widely misunderstood) implication that Europe must eventually move towards a true federal structure as well, is entirely Kohl's doing. And the whole enterprise is based on an unwritten Franco-German deal.

It goes back to 1990, when France accepted German reunification even though it made Germany once again a more powerful country than France, with 80 million people vs. 55 million and a much bigger economy. These are the two countries whose enmity lay at the heart of the last three major wars in Europe – wars that shattered the continent and destroyed its domination over the rest of the world – and yet Mitterrand raised no obstacles to this huge shift in power.

The French president let it happen because he trusted Kohl. The German leader was over a decade younger, but he had grown up amid the ruins of post-1945 Germany, and he shared Mitterrand's belief that only political unity could prevent Europe from going down that road again one day. Europe is the one continent that rivals Africa in the bitterness and complexity of its ethnic divisions – over forty sovereign states (not counting the Andorras and Liechtensteins) for only 600 million people – and it is much better armed.

For these two closet pan-Europeans, joint heirs of the wreckage of World War II, unity was the only long-term alternative to renewed calamity. But Kohl was the key: as the leader of the greatest power of central Europe, he was the only man who could deliver German assent to a larger structure that would forever tame and contain German aspirations within a pan-European framework. Indeed, he was probably the last German leader whose life experiences would give him the will and the vision to make such a sacrifice.

By 1994 Kohl was on his last leg politically, while Mitterrand was literally dying, but Kohl had a plan that would lock Europe on course for political unification permanently without arousing premature opposition from the diehard nationalists. Economic and Monetary Union made little sense, especially for Germany, but Kohl's prestige would sell it to the German people, and the other major European players would go along with it to be rid of the tyranny of the almighty deutschmark.

First, however, Kohl had to win the 1994 election – so Mitterrand slipped the CDU $15 million to help the campaign along, and Kohl squeaked through. The Trojan Horse of monetary union was wheeled in through the gates last January, and that ultimately commits the member states to a political union as well whether they like it or not. The 'bribe' has achieved its aim.

As for the motives of the protagonists, you have only to think back to the time when Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand visited the haunted battlefield of Verdun, where over a million French and German soldiers died in terrible and futile battles in 1915-16. As they stood side by side and the bugles played, there were tears in their eyes. Then they reached out and held hands.

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Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.