What is left from Kohl’s era?

Much has changed, yet paradoxically, perhaps Europe is closer now to its 1990s vision than it has ever been.

The death of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl last week has brought on an understandable wave of nostalgia across Europe.  Kohl embodied the very ideals of the Anglo-Saxon-led West of the 1990s – in particular, the ideal of solidarity with others’ right to live in free and democratic societies.

While this is a notion of the West which is now gone, it is one that heavily shaped my generation in Central and Eastern Europe.  We were convinced that transforming our parochial economies and societies along the lines of Western liberalism was not only right, but the only possibility. A small group of us started by occupying Sofia high schools in an attempt to remove communist ideology from Bulgarian textbooks. With the image of the collapsing Berlin Wall fresh in our minds, we believed that the road to Europe would be short and painless.

“Deutschland Zentralmacht Europas”, Germany: Central Power of Europe was the title of the 1994 book by Kohl’s biographer and my mentor in the University of Bonn, Prof. Hans-Peter Schwarz. He evoked the attraction of Kohl’s united Germany: the pinnacle of a new, optimistic Europe. The book described Germany’s role as mediator and stabiliser within the EU, even constraining its own power to avoid hegemony. The dual process – led by Kohl – of deepening and enlarging the European Union not only served the interests of Germany’s Western partners, but helped to create peace and order in its vicinity. The accession of Central and Eastern Europe to the EU transformed Europe into a more diverse, free and globally significant place.

Today some Bulgarians think that the transition is still not over: the current state of society seems unjust, un-European. 40 per cent of pupils are unsure whether the wall that fell in 1989 was in Berlin or in China. Many Poles and Hungarians prefer the idea of sovereignty to the EU notion of solidarity. Czechs and Bulgarians confuse nostalgia with Russophilia. A majority of Central and Eastern Europeans are prone to populist fears equating migrants with terrorists. But all of this has happened within a framework that has made unification of the continent and Europeanisation of its eastern parts irreversible.

In contrast with the past few years – when the EU was ridden by crises, doubted its own survival, and seemed to be turning against Germany – the months preceding Kohl’s death have been marked by renewed enthusiasm for the European project. It is, of course, a very different Europe from that depicted by Schwarz: The transatlantic relationship has cooled under President Trump; free trade is under threat; the EU is growing smaller with Brexit; and Russia once more threatens the continent’s security. But, paradoxically, perhaps Europe is closer now to its 1990s vision than it has ever been.

Today’s Germany seems to have finally arrived at the position it was destined 28 years ago to acquire: as a recent ECFR study demonstrated, Germany is ready to lead. Europe cannot progress without being solidly anchored in domestic politics, insisted Schwarz in 1994. This notion was dismissed in the post-national mood of the time, but has been vindicated by the experience of recent years.

Now that the climate is ripe for renewed action at the EU level, the test cases appear to be defence and reform of the Eurozone. Europe, as the lone defender of liberal values, clearly needs greater defence capacities. The establishment of a European Defence Fund should be a cornerstone in a new wave of deepening the Union. But it will stretch Germany’s willingness to lead in the most historically sensitive area: defence. Eurozone reform, built around the renewed Franco-German motor (a throwback to Kohl’s times), must follow both the ‘deepening’ and ‘enlargement’ vectors to be successful, and should include as many of the member states as possible.

Comparing the Germany of today with that of Kohl’s, the country’s stabilising and reassuring role has remained central, but the agenda has changed in three fundamental ways. Today Germany seeks to work with as many partners in the EU as possible – while helping processes and institutions evolve – but it does not press for enlargement. Beyond the immediate neighbours in the Western Balkans and Ukraine, democracy promotion has been replaced by humanitarian aid. And in terms of the global agenda, climate change has become the new human rights.

The romanticism of the early 1990s is gone but Germany is even more significant to Europe and the world than before; realists like Kohl and Schwarz were ahead of their time. Yet to me there was a sort of historic symmetry in the fact that the biographer passed away just two days before his famous protagonist. It is time to acknowledge the end of an era. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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