Chancellor Schroder and assorted ministers travelled to Ukraine last week, and discovered that Bonn’s power has grown thin.
Germany sees itself as the champion of European expansion, remains by far the biggest investor in the post-communist sphere, has just netted the European Commission post responsible for enlargement and has moved its capital to Berlin – yet its influence is only as thick as its wallet.
It is a visible presence in Eastern Europe but with its sluggish economy and confused goals, Bonn’s advice and pressure are increasingly ignored.
The Kiev trip turned into a fiasco for the Germans. Gerhard Schroder wanted to persuade Ukraine not only to close Chernobyl but to end work on two substitute nuclear reactors elsewhere. Ukraine was promised Western aid four years ago to modernize its electricity supply and bring the two reactors close to Western safety standards. In return, the last block of the blighted Chernobyl plant was to be switched off by next year and to be given a new concrete overcoat to prevent it leaking. As it happened, there was yet another incident in Chernobyl while the Germans were in Ukraine.
Chancellor Schroeder called the plant a “time-bomb”.
The Chancellor’s Social Democrats rule with the Green Party. The Greens became a mainstream political force amid the repercussions of the Chernobyl meltdown 13 years ago. Now Chernobyl is the issue that best illustrates the limits of a Green-led foreign policy.
The Green (and the Social Democratic parliamentary group) want Ukraine to turn away from nuclear power and make more use of gas. The costs of this would be huge and it would entail heavy dependency on Russian supplies. Even before the Germans arrived, Kiev was saying: no thanks.
The German delegation – including the Economics Minister, Werner Muller, and the Environment Minister, Jurgen Trittin, a Green – spent two hours, instead of the scheduled 30 minutes, trying to browbeat the Ukrainians into moving towards hard coal or brown coal-fired power stations.
Some homework could have saved them the effort. Ukrainian coalmines are a mess – aged, often dangerous, with only four out of 276 profitable. Power stations are not paying for coal deliveries since neither domestic consumers nor businesses are meeting electricity bills. Investment in the coal industry is pathetically low.
The Germans, brimming with Green fervor, arrived on the doorstep last week to suggest that coal would solve Ukraine’s energy crisis. Little wonder that the official interpreter collapsed after the two-hour session.
Germany, praised by many for its statesmanship over Kosovo, was ill-prepared and diplomatically inept in Kiev. Ukraine had no problem shrugging off Bonn’s demands. Perhaps one day Chernobyl will be shut but Ukraine will never renounce its nuclear option.
Every big power can slip up; indeed, the greater the power the greater the potential for miscalculation in diplomatic dealings with smaller states. But Germany’s uncertain touch in the East reflects deeper divisions in the ruling parties.
A significant group of Social Democrats opposed Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining NATO. An even larger group accepts the historical inevitability of European enlargement but does not understand the rush. Others want the Government to concentrate on addressing Russian fears.
Those speaking for specific lobbies – farmers, steel and coal producers – or trade unions favor very gradual integration. There are Europhile socialists in Germany who say deeper integration has to come long before enlargement. And there are the global socialists who see enlargement as diverting aid funds from the Third World.
All this contributes to a fumbling approach – and perhaps an opportunity for Britain to sharpen its profile in Eastern Europe.