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25th Jan 2021

Kohl confesses to euro's undemocratic beginnings

  • Helmut Kohl says he would not have won a referendum on the euro (Photo: Christliches Medienmagazin pro)

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl - the architect of German reunification - admitted he would never have won a referendum on the adoption of the euro in his country and said he acted "like a dictator" to see the common currency introduced.

In an interview from 2002 but published only recently as part of a PhD thesis written by journalist Jens Peter Paul, Kohl said that the idea behind the euro was to avoid another war in Europe.

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"Nations with a common currency never went to war against each other. A common currency is more than the money you pay with," he said.

He recalled French President Francois Mitterand - and other European leaders of the time - repeatedly urged him to push through the common currency idea, which was not very popular in Germany.

"They thought - and were right about it - that if Germany doesn't adopt the euro, nobody will. And about the German situation they said: if Helmut Kohl doesn't push it through, nobody else will. Decisions emerged out of this core attitude," Kohl said.

One of these decisions was not to step down and let his popular interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, become chancellor in the 1994 elections. Schaeuble, who currently serves as finance minister in the government of Angela Merkel, would not have been able to push through the euro, Kohl said.

"Schaeuble is a very talented man, no doubt about it, but this was not a matter for a newcomer, you needed someone with full authority," Kohl said.

Germany's chancellor between 1982 and 1998, Kohl said it took him "years" to build the trust and negotiation skills to convince other European leaders of his ideas and push them through.

"And it paid off, for instance in the Frankfurt Bank," Kohl said, in reference to the concession made by France and Great Britain to allow the European Central Bank to be based in Frankfurt.

With political parties springing up in favour of keeping Deutsche Mark and his own Christian-Democrats lukewarm to the idea of the euro, Kohl said a referendum on the matter would have been a lost cause.

"I knew that I could never have won a referendum here in Germany. We would have lost any plebiscite about the introduction of the euro. That is very clear. I would have lost it," he said.

The odds would have been about seven to three against the euro, Kohl recalled. The Social-Democratic opposition would not have come out against it, but also "not gone to the battlefield in favour of the euro, surely not."

In addition, the freshly reunified East Germans, happy to finally have their Deutsche Mark back, would never have voted in favour of abandoning it again for a new European currency.

"In the end, representative democracy can only be successful if someone stands up and says: this is how it is. I link my existence to this political project. Then you get a whole bunch of people in your own party who say: If he falls, I fall too. And then it is not about the euro - it is a life philosophy."

"I wanted to bring the euro because to me it meant the irreversibility of European development... for me the euro was a synonym for Europe going further," Kohl said.

But he admitted that in bringing this idea to life he "was like a dictator."

Asked if he had to accept the euro in return for French support for German reunification, Kohl replied:

"No more war - that was the first message. That was the point for men like Mitterand and Kohl, who in 1984 held hands on the Verdun battlefield. It wasn't about German reunification first and foremost."

Kohl paid tribute to Mitterand's wife, Danielle, who told her husband not to ignore east Germans' desire to reunite with their western brothers.

"On German reunification, Mitterand was torn. The President of the Republic had all the files from Quai d'Orsay [the French foreign ministry] and they were not in favour of German reunification. Better keep them [the Germans] as few as possible," Kohl recalled.

In the end, Mitterand's wife prevailed. The Berlin wall fell and Germany reunited in 1990. Kohl was celebrated as the chancellor of German reunification.

His other big legacy however - bringing the euro to life without enough public support - remains controversial. That the single currency began as a political project without being backed up by an economic union is seen as at the root of the ongoing crisis in the eurozone.

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