Helmut Kohl and the European ideal

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac
On Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s (R) bearlike embrace of France, a European architecture was built. Here Kohl greets French President Jacques Chirac in 1997 (source: dpa)

Dr. Helmut Kohl was German chancellor for four terms from 1982 to 1998. He is known as the Chancellor of Unification, but history will also see him as a great European.

Educated as a historian, he had a thorough understanding of political processes and national and regional variations.

Ties that bind

European integration was his main focus. Although he had quite different principles and views from French President Francois Mitterrand (1981-1995), the German-French understanding continued to propel Europe forward. Kohl had a deep respect for the needs and equal rights of the smaller nations. This helped sustain the cohesion so essential to Europe. His understanding of the principle of subsidiarity was key.

The firm and close friendship between Germany and France was established by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) and President Charles de Gaulle (1959-1970). Like Helmuth Kohl, they were convinced Christians and Europeans, and took care that their countries spearheaded Europe, but did not dominate it.

Kohl continued this tradition. For him, the European Union was not to be governed like a national state. Instead, he saw it as a close union to serve the common interests of sovereign states in matters of long-term importance. To make the EU sustainable, Kohl strove for a robust European framework that would make integration solid, guarantee internal peace and prohibit foreign intervention.

He was a big promoter of the euro, not just for business reasons – such as facilitating payments or calculating costs in the internal market – but above all from political considerations. In his view, the euro would be another binding element in the European framework.

The euro’s present problems are largely due to the failure of successor governments to follow the original design


Starting in 1989, Chancellor Kohl worked with a highly competent minister of finance, Dr. Theo Waigel, who strongly promoted the fiscal responsibility later enshrined in the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact.

The so-called Maastricht criteria, which Dr. Waigel originally proposed as elements of the EU treaty, set standards for joining the euro area, while capping yearly budget deficits at 3 percent of gross domestic product and public debt at 60 percent of GDP.

The European Central Bank was meant to be an entity wholly independent from politicians and forbidden from engaging in fiscal policy. The euro’s present problems are mainly due to the failure of successor governments in various countries to respect this design and the Maastricht criteria.

Tiny window

The German government strongly supported the countries of Central Europe in their post-communist transformation, and Chancellor Kohl was essential in paving the way for their access to the EU. An important ally in this task was the European Parliament, and especially Otto von Habsburg, who ceaselessly promoted the Central European agenda.

When Yugoslavia disintegrated, it was German and Austrian support (strongly opposed by the UK and France) that helped Slovenia and Croatia survive, even as Bosnia and the Western Balkans slid into decades of turmoil and hardship. Kohl understood the underlying historical reasons why Yugoslavia was an artificial state. Austrian Foreign Minister Helmuth Mock had a similar profound knowledge.

During the Kohl era, Germany advanced the European cause without being domineering. Because he had a deep understanding of practical politics, he was a master at creating balances and grasping opportunities. This was the secret behind one of his greatest political accomplishments, German unification, which depended on seizing a tiny window of opportunity and shrewdly assessing the geopolitical situation.

What Europe means

The European Commission and other EU authorities should draw a simple lesson from the legacy of great statesmen such as De Gaulle, Adenauer and Kohl. Europe is not a national state but a fatherland of diverse fatherlands, a variegated union of sovereign states in which small entities have the same rights as larger ones. Centralized functions should be limited to the essential, excessive harmonization avoided, and healthy internal competition between member states and regions encouraged.

German-French friendship remains crucial, but it should not overshadow everything else



The German-French friendship remains crucial, but it should not overshadow everything else. The current push from Paris to create union-level ministries of finance and economy can only be detrimental. Threats by France’s new president against the governments of Hungary and Poland, even when camouflaged as a common EU interest, are really a sign of arrogance and interference, and could even be considered an attempt to dominate.

Helmut Kohl refused a German state funeral. He wanted a European and Christian memorial, and asked to be buried in Speyer, an old Roman town on the Rhine. In the days of The Holy Roman Empire, the Rhine was not a border, but the central artery of the Christian West.

Beneath the magnificent Romanesque vaults of Speyer Cathedral, some of the most important emperors of the 12th and 13th centuries are buried. King Rudolf I, the first German king or emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from the Habsburgs – Europe’s longest-reigning and most European dynasty – journeyed to Speyer in 1291, when he felt close to death, to die and be buried there.

Even Dr. Helmut Kohl’s place of interment has a deeper meaning. Europe owes him a great debt.

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