A challenge in the streets

BRUCE WALLACE March 31 1997

A challenge in the streets

BRUCE WALLACE March 31 1997

A challenge in the streets




Gold comes in two forms in the wedding cake town of Baden-Baden, perched on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest in the Rhine River valley. There is the scalding, mineral-laced water that explodes out of the earth and trickles back down the mountainside into tiled spas, to be marketed as an elixir for aches and ailments. And there is the musical clink of gambling chips colliding on the felt of its casino, still the main money-spinner in town.

The combination of thermal baths and gambling made the resort a favorite playground for Europe’s aristocracy in the mid-19th century, when it called itself the Summer Capital of Europe. And Baden-Baden still likes to think of itself as a most European of towns.

This is a crucial year for the European Union. Britain’s May 1 election may lead to a more Euro-friendly government in a member often at odds with the increasingly integrated association. In June, leaders of all 15 EU countries will assess their readiness for a landmark single currency and discuss expanding eastward. Yet opposition to change wrought by EU policies is rising across the continent. To take soundings on the state of the Union in two crucial countries, Maclean’s London Bureau Chief Bruce Wallace travelled through the region where France and Germany meet. His report:

“This has always been a very European place, just managing to duck the worst of European history,” says Renate Effera, a local historian who is writing a book on the Russian connection to Baden-Baden. The town’s vocation was insulation against the devastating European wars that so often roiled around it. Unlike most other cities along the Rhine, Baden-Baden was never bombed by the Allies—the French having wisely picked the town ahead of time as a comfortable place to put their headquarters for the postwar occupation (where Canadian troops were among those NATO allies to enjoy its benefits). The French knew better than to turn it to rubble—they had been among Baden-Baden’s most frequent tourists.

The Russians have also long been visitors to Baden-Baden, ever since the early 1800s when Czar Alexander I stopped off to recuperate on his way back to Moscow after subduing Napoleon’s army. On Baden-Baden’s old cobblestone streets, well-heeled ladies still walk their fashionably short dogs on long leashes past the house where Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote his novel The Gambler a century and a half ago. Now, Russia’s new business aristocrats are coming back to gamble. “The spirit of 19th-century Europe is still alive here,” says Effern, sitting in a café located in the graceful building that was once home to the White Russian Gagarin family. “Baden-Baden is Europe like it should be— but so often isn’t.”

Effern’s “Europe” remains a state of mind, formed intellectually and emotionally out of a childhood spent in the postwar wreckage of its last great nationalist convulsion. But the attempt to create a politically united




Europe still meets resistance—even in cosmopolitan corners like Baden-Baden. Across the Lichtentalerallee promenade, in the opulent casino built by a Frenchman in 1832 and modelled on the palace at Versailles, smartly tailored manager Helmut Fettig, 60, sits and worries. He worries about the new gaming house in Stuttgart that is poaching many of his customers. He admits to fretting about his coming retirement. And he shares the widespread German worry about plans by European Union governments to swap their currencies— including the revered Deutschmark—for an untried single currency called the euro beginning in 1999.

As long as times were good, most Germans kept any uneasiness about dropping the mark to themselves. “For so long, Germans have enjoyed such a good life that no one challenged the politicians,” says Fettig. “We are the world champions of holiday-makers, so why worry about politics?” But now there are 4.8 million unemployed Germans on public benefits, the highest figure since the 1930s. And the government has vowed to make further spending cuts—all in the name of meeting the rigid fiscal demands of the new single currency. “It is a huge gamble,” sighs Fettig, who speaks with more authority than most about the art of risk. “Look how expensive reuniting Germany has turned out to be—and everyone thought that was a good idea at the time.”

A cold fear has washed over Europe. High and rising unemployment has made life uncomfortable for politicians and downright dangerous in places for such easy scapegoats as immigrants. “Europe has never existed,” said the late Jean Monnet, a founding father of the modern European movement in the 1950s. “It has to be created.” But European union remains the baby of political and economic elites. The emotional arguments against integration are being made in the streets—and Europe’s leaders are in retreat.

The Rhine valley is an instructive place to examine the forces that have brought Europe to the brink of this leap of monetary faith. The Rhine is many rivers. It carves a natural border through the heart of western

Europe, passing by—but not through—the cities along its shores, a historic dividing line. Fettig still recalls the adrenaline rush of swimming across to the heavily guarded French banks as a boy. It is also a river of commerce, where at times the water widens and the river traffic gets thicker and the filth of industry’s exhaust surfs its currents. Then there is the romantic Rhine, inspired by ruined castles of medieval princes, and the fairytales spun from the river’s legends.

But most terribly, the Rhine has been a river of war. The Roman Empire bequeathed it a still-visible trail of forts, and its banks

When the Allies finally blasted their way across the river, they crossed at Remegen on the only bridge left standing.

Today, crossing the Rhine is as simple as a drive to the corner store. At Strasbourg, bored French gendarmes wave cars across the 37-year-old Europe Bridge from the German side, the need to brake slightly the only nod to the pretence of a border in this new era of a converging Europe. Strasbourg is the capital of France’s Alsace region, a prosperous land of rolling hills coated by farms and vineyards that has changed hands in wars between France and Germany four times. It now also proclaims itself the capital of Europe, home to the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights.

As a witness to the destructive powers of Europe’s civil wars, this modest city of gabled houses and muddy canals symbolizes the continent’s attempt at reconciliation. “The idea of another German invasion is preposterous now,” says Claude Damm, who heads a volunteer group in nearby Schoenenberg that preserves one of the concrete bunkers from the old Maginot Line, France’s ill-fated Second World War defence network against the Germans. “The only need for a Maginot Line now is to have something to show the tourists.”

But if the architects of a united Europe have never been so close to their goal, neither have they ever faced such concerted resistance. Their strategy has always been to forge closer economic ties across Europe in order to pull political union along in their wake. Germany’s enduring Chancellor Helmut Kohl—who has thumped more backs than any other European statesman in the name of propelling European unity forward—calls the process of integration “irreversible.” Kohl has warned repeatedly that what is at stake over European union is nothing less than “a question of war and peace in Europe.” He, too, comes from the Rhine—the rather bland, industrial city of Ludwigshafen. His father was a survivor of the First World War

Popular anger is rising over the plan for European unity

soaked up the slaughter of the Thirty Years’

War in 1618. In the 19th century, French and German poets hurled nationalist claims to its ownership in rhyme. The Rhine is scarred by the seesaw of invasions and counter-invasions, battles that ended only with the collapse of the last Nazi defences on its western banks in the winter of 1945.


slaughter at Verdun. His older brother, Walter, was killed in the second war. Kohl lived through the Allied bombing and, when it ended, staged a teenage protest at the Franco-German border calling for an open Europe. As Chancellor, he held hands with the late French president François Mitterrand at Verdun in 1986, a symbolic bridging of Europe’s greatest rivalry. In Kohl’s political world, European dissenters are branded with the label German nationalists—and everyone knows what they are up to. As Mitterrand was fond of sloganizing: “Nationalism is war.”

But the generation of leaders with firsthand experience of Germany’s last bout of adventurism is fading from the scene. Only Kohl remains. And opposition to European unity comes from several political directions. Social democrats and unreconstructed leftists fear that a liberalized European single market will undermine the various, generous social safety nets. They might not dislike “Europe” in principle. But they don’t like the freemarket jungle it is becoming.

Other dissent comes from rightwing nationalists, such as France’s extremist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Le Pen’s National Front party is now swaying the French political agenda its way with its anti-European, antiimmigrant, pro-French cultural policies. And it draws sustenance from a deep suspicion of the powerful European bureaucracy working out of Brussels, easily derided as being out-of-touch and uncaring about national differences.

Paradoxically, the National Front is strongest in the Alsace region, where support for the European Union is also the highest in France.

Such polarization brings out venom on both sides with little prompting. ‘These European politicians are all liars and thieves who suck our taxes to give away to people who don’t even want to work,” spits Alsace restaurant owner Daniel Kuntz, whose restaurant caters to tourists who make the steep backwoods climb to see Le Struthof, a Nazi concentration camp built in France. The pro-Europeans are just as ready for a fight. Last week, the two sides were mobilizing to meet on the pavement in Strasbourg on March 29, where the National Front is holding a convention. Trouble can be counted on.

The rapidly approaching start-up date of the single currency has only stoked those emotions. The conflict springs from the determination of Germany’s powerful central bankers to safeguard the value of the new currency. The Germans’ historical memory

of 1920s hyperinflation has defined their economic policy the way the lines of jobless during the Great Depression affected Canadian economic psychology for generations afterwards. Since the arrival of the euro will mean surrendering the solid, inflation-proof mark, the Germans insisted that countries using the euro could not run high budget deficits. They recoiled from sharing a currency with people “south of the Alps,” at

least until those famously profligate countries like Italy and Spain exorcised their bad economic habits. So the framers of the new currency agreed to set the deficit ceiling at three per cent of gross domestic product. And they wrote it into the 1992 Maastricht treaty, making the figure legally binding and—supposedly—impossible to fudge.

The result has been social upheaval, as Europe’s free-spending governments scramble to slash their budgets in time to qualify for the euro. Public sector layoffs could not come at a worse time: the EU already has about 18 million unemployed workers. And every attempt to wean European workers from their generous benefits is seen as an attack on Europe’s social fabric. All of it

lands on the head of the single currency. “We are proud of a system that has run with great success for some decades,” says Dr. Klaus Dienst, who runs the AOK therapeutic clinic in Baden-Baden, which has seen its client list halved since health coverage for “cures” was cut back last year. “Maybe some people took advantage of the state’s generosity. Maybe Germans don’t work as hard as they think they do. But just because some people cheat and get on the streetcars for free, do you shut down the streetcars?”

The backlash has brought thousands of angry citizens onto the streets, carrying banners with slogans like “Europe: a social cemetery.” When Kohl tried to cut huge state subsidies to Germany’s inefficient coal industries this month, miners closed roads, marched on Bonn and locked politicians out of their offices with chains. “Germans don’t want to give up their pampered paradise,” says a critical Britta Steilmann, heiress to a huge German clothing empire who also markets her own environmentally correct clothing line. “There is still an attitude here that you don’t have to work. And the more the economy falls, the more you see the old nationalism creeping back.”

Kohl backed down—in part—to the miners, following the familiar pattern of retreat by European governments. The conservative French government of President Jacques Chirac, despite its desperation to get spending under the Maastricht ceiling, has still been forced to back away from several ¡2 unpopular budget measures when

0 confronted by paralyzing protests.

1 In a French opinion poll this I month, 72 per cent of respondents 5 said current economic conditions 1 leave them either “afraid” or

“ready to rebel.” And one of the § best-selling books in France is Economic Horror, a soupy mix of “■ pop economics and polemical politics warning of the supposed perils of loosening labor laws.

Meanwhile, most private estimates now suggest that even Germany will not meet the three-per-cent limit, opening the possibility that the euro will either be delayed or the criteria fudged. So far, Kohl refuses to budge, insisting that delay would kill momentum and, effectively, the single currency. He should not be counted out. Kohl’s stubbornness saw the reunification of Germany through, and uniting Europe is his last unfinished business. The coming months will show whether there can be a Europe truly without borders—and whether it is possible to create more than just a Europe of the mind. □

The generation with war experience is fading