With the retirement in May of ailing French president Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, chancellor of Germany since 1982, has become the senior statesman of the Group of Seven countries.
The 65-year-old Kohl, in Halifax this past week for the G-7 meetings, has led his country through reunification and his continent towards a more encompassing European Union. These issues are ''two sides of the same coin,'' he often says, occasionally attributing the concept to Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the new Federal Republic of Germany that was created after the Second World War.
By frequently emphasizing the close link between reunification and union with Germany's European neighbors, Kohl continues to reassure anyone who has lingering concerns that a united Germany would want, once again, to become a strong military power and a potential threat to other countries. He makes it clear that his government prefers economic strength over military strength and integration over independence.
During May 8 ceremonies in Berlin marking the 50th anniversary of Germany's surrender in the Second World War, Kohl deferred to German head of state President Roman Herzog who addressed an international gathering that included British Prime Minister John Major and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
A few days earlier, however, Kohl had released a statement saying May 8 ''makes it unmistakably clear that a life of peace and freedom cannot be taken for granted. It is an admonition to us to build a peaceful order in Europe based on unqualified respect for the individual's human rights and international law.''
By taking this broader view, Kohl seemed to be trying to soothe a widespread angst over the event and calm a dispute between those Germans who saw the day as Germany's liberation from Nazi terror and those who viewed it as a humiliating defeat for the nation. Kohl had told a television interviewer he found this debate ''deeply depressing.''
Some of Kohl's international political clout has come from Germany's economic strength.
''At former European Community summits, when negotiations or central issues were deadlocked, it was often Helmut Kohl who opened a door, and very often it was a financial one,'' says Antonius Halbe, senior political adviser to the CDU. ''This is no longer possible today because the financial situation in Germany is not as strong as it was at the end of the '80s. Solidarity today in Europe demands common efforts and not just German efforts and funding.''
Kohl's sustained leadership in unifying both Germany and Europe is widely respected.
During the process of German unification, Kohl ''didn't make any mistakes that would have held up or killed the process. He gets a lot of credit for that,'' says Eduard Heussen, spokesman for the Social Democrats in Berlin. The SPD, part of the ruling coalition in Berlin, is the opposition to Kohl's Christian Democratic Union-led coalition government in the Bundestag, the federal parliament, and holds the majority in the upper house, called the Bundesrat.
Heussen says his party ''doesn't have big differences'' with the way Kohl wants to move to a stronger EU.
The biggest disagreement the SPD has with Kohl's international policy is the way he advocates sending German soldiers outside the country on peacekeeping missions, he says: ''German soldiers have maybe done enough this century.''
Heussen says there are other ways to help other countries, such as increased funding. Germany had so much help after the Second World War, he says, it's now Germany's turn to help its EU and east European neighbors with aid.
Yet Kohl's strong support for sending German troops to support NATO missions, contrary to a federal law which prohibited soldiers from ''out-of-area missions,'' was one of the factors that swung voters in his favor in the last election, says Mark Webber, co-ordinator of the program in German studies at York University in Toronto. A federal constitutional court upheld Kohl's position that if parliament decides it is appropriate, German soldiers can participate in international military missions.
Kohl, whose government slapped a 7.5% income tax on western Germans to pay for development in eastern Germany after he promised in the 1990 campaign there would be no new taxes, had been expected to lose the election. But the tide changed about six months before the vote took place Oct. 16.
Webber, who was in Germany in October for what was only the second federal vote after reunification, says an economic upswing and the sense that Kohl stood for stability at home and for European unity also helped Kohl get re-elected.
Still, the margin was slim and the future of the government remains uncertain. Kohl's conservative CDU party, a partner with Bavaria's Christian Social Union, holds on to power through a coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party that dates back to 1978. With the FDP's 46 seats in the Bundestag, the coalition has 330 seats, compared to a total 326 for the leftist opposition parties combined.
It's a difficult juggling act for the government because the FDP is struggling for its political survival, Halbe says. The FDP has suffered huge defeats in 12 recent elections and votes. After the most recent losses the head of the FDP announced he would step down and this is expected to change the nature of the coalition.
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Revised: June 3, 1995
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