AS BRITAIN and France go, so goes Germany? Not necessarily. Europe's most enduring politician, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, makes the difference. Britain's Tories may have lost to the Labor Party and France, too, may have swung left, but Mr. Kohl remains serenely confident he can win a fifth term next year despite low marks in the polls and press predictions of defeat.
If he rolls to victory once again, he will have a shot at replacing Prince Otto von Bismarck as Germany's longest serving chancellor. But Mr. Kohl professes no interest in such statistics. His goal is to be on hand for the achievement of a common European currency as the capstone of an expanded European Union.
The target date is 1999. Before then, any countries desiring to adopt the "euro" (a potential rival to the dollar and the yen) will have to reduce their annual fiscal deficits to less than 3 percent of gross national product. This is not some obscure number of interest chiefly to economists. It is the stuff of hot politics, as voters rebel at government austerity measures that cut benefits and increase unemployment.
The peril of such policies is implicit in the defeat of incumbent British and French conservatives. It is also apparent in the maneuvers of Mr. Kohl's finance minister, Theo Waigel, to get under the 3 percent mark by the bookkeeping gimmick of revaluing German gold reserves. Mr. Waigel has been rebuked by the mighty Bundesbank, but some variation of his plan will likely prevail as an alternative, heaven forfend, to higher taxes or lower spending.
More troubling is the opposition of France's new Socialist premier, Lionel Jospin, to the Kohl criteria. He wants a focus on growth and jobs, not just monetary stability. A meeting Friday produced no agreement, leaving the issue for a pan-European summit this week.
Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats are showing some of the wear and tear of 16 years in power. But his opposition on the left is in its usual disarray. If he can lift the economy out of its doldrums and achieve his dream of anchoring Germany within a substantial European community, the grandfatherly politician who presided over his country's reunification may still have more history to make.
Pub Date: 6/16/97