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Friday, 28 January, 2000, 14:04 GMT
Analysis: Scandal at the heart of Europe

Kohl and Mitterand worked for a united Germany Kohl and Mitterand worked for a united Germany

By Jonathan Eyal

The funding scandal that has engulfed Germany's Christian Democratic Union is now threatening the country's entire political landscape.

There have been political scandals in Germany before, of course, usually involving a clash between high morals and skulduggery, a sprinkle of senior politicians, shady arms dealers and failed businessmen.

And they usually end by establishing a link between the award of lucrative government contracts and the illicit financing of some party or politician.

The CDU knew it was committing suicide when it went to the last elections with Helmut Kohl at its helm
So it may seem the present scandal which centres around Germany's former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is hardly remarkable; indeed Mr Kohl fell foul of legislation which he himself introduced in the wake of such a previous misdemeanour.

But the current affair is more significant than previous scandals it questions the integrity of Germany's entire political system, and reveals some of the dealings between various European governments immediately after the end of the Cold War.

Many of the allegations against Mr Kohl and some of his CDU associates are yet to be proven.

But it is clear that illicit money was obtained, and it is fairly certain that a connection between German and French middle-men facilitated many of these transactions.

Given what we know about the political landscape in Europe during the early 1990s, when these dealings began, it is also fairly easy to work out their main purpose: It was nothing less than to anchor a new Germany into a united European continent.

Party discipline

Chancellor Kohl started his career as a provincial politician, and never forgot his roots, retaining an obsessive interest in the appointment of every CDU party official.

To some extent, Germany's federal structure, with its frequent elections, dictates such an approach: The slightest mishap in one Lender can upset the federal parliamentary balance, as Mr Kohl himself discovered towards the end of his reign.

Kohl's priority was German reunification Kohl's priority was German reunification
But the former Chancellor wanted more than just party discipline; he created a vast system of patronage designed to ensure unquestionable obedience. The tactic worked: The CDU knew it was committing suicide when it went to the last elections with Helmut Kohl at its helm.

But nobody dared challenge him and nobody was able to prevent Mr Kohl from hand-picking his successor even after a crushing electoral defeat.

Slush funds may have been a necessary adjunct of this process, for they provided Kohl with the ability of rewarding party branches according to priorities which only the Chancellor decided.

There was an even more pressing need for these funds in the early 1990s: The prospect of German unification.

The collapse of East Germany in late 1989 and the unstoppable process of unification that followed, dictated an unusually high number of elections in close proximity.

There were elections at all levels in West Germany, followed by the first free elections in the East and, finally, all-German elections.

There was an even more pressing need for these funds in the early 1990s: The prospect of German unification
All these events were bound to put intolerable strains on a party's finances, but Helmut Kohl felt these pressures even more.

His Social Democratic opponents at the time publicly expressed doubts about the wisdom of German unification, while in East Germany the old Communist Party still controlled most of the funds and was the only organised political movement.

Mr Kohl had to move fast to establish his party's structures in the East, not only to defeat the Communists, but also make sure the Social Democrats were trounced as well.

This was not simply a party issue. Mr Kohl fervently believed he enjoyed only a brief window of opportunity; if the Social Democrats controlled East Germany they could have halted German unification, or at least slowed the process down.

The risk was that doubts would be raised in the minds of West Germans, causing countries such as the Soviet Union and the United States to have second thoughts.

Success therefore depended on speed, and on Helmut Kohl's ability to keep power in the Western part of the country, while assuming control in the East as well.

Kohl's priority

As far as the Chancellor was concerned, the end justified the means.

The man who deliberately lied to his public by promising that German unification "would not cost a pfenning" (it has cost many hundreds of billions of marks ever since) was hardly likely to have qualms about accepting illicit funds in order to boost his party's structures in East Germany.

The fact that he himself did not personally benefit from these funds was sufficient; Mr Kohl genuinely believed the interests of the CDU and those of Germany were two sides of the same coin.

It was in Mitterand's interests to see Kohl stay in power It was in Mitterand's interests to see Kohl stay in power
And this is more or less what France's then President Francois Mitterrand believed as well.

After a brief period when he tried to prevent German unification, he struck a bargain with Kohl: This unification would take place inside a tightly-bound Europe, and a monetary union would be established in order to neutralise Germany's potential might.

Chancellor Kohl bought the deal; his German Social Democratic opponents did not. Mr Mitterrand's worst nightmare was a united Germany which was no longer ruled by Mr Kohl and which repudiated the deal he brokered; preventing this from happening was worth any price.

We do not know if payments were personally authorised by the French president. But he would have had no qualms in doing so, and his preferred method was always to launder cash through state-owned firms.

The French oil company - then state-owned - which is now at the centre of the scandal, clearly had government encouragement in buying property in East Germany. Establishing French economic presence in the East was Mitterrand's explicit aim.

High expectations

Germany's scandal will continue for some time, but its wider European consequences should not be exaggerated.

It does not indicate that Germany is corrupt; the country was shaken precisely because it expects high moral probity from its politicians and has one of the most draconian party-funding regulations in the world.

Nor does it mean that the European unification process started with the original sin of corruption and is therefore morally bankrupt.

Many Europeans instinctively knew for some time that dark games were played behind the scenes during those heady days immediately after the end of the Cold War. They have got the first proof of these games.

Nothing excuses what Helmut Kohl and his associates did. But the extraordinary historic circumstances of their time in office do help explain why otherwise honest individuals acted in the way that they did.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

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See also:
19 Jan 00 |  Europe
Q&A: Germany's party funding scandal
19 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Tough road ahead for CDU
04 Jan 00 |  Europe
Kohl's mark on history
04 Jan 00 |  Europe
Kohl scandal: The story so far

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