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The death of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt last week sent ripples of sadness across Europe, not just his own country. The expressions of grief were a reflection of how the characterful and purposeful Schmidt had enriched European politics during his long career but also of our yearning for leaders in a similar mould, which the European Union seems so bereft of at the moment.
Naturally, on these occasions there is a tendency to be overcome by nostalgia and to deliver hagiographies of leaders past rather than a measured assessment of what they offered. Like all politicians, Schmidt is not without his critics. His restrictive economic policy and decision to station nuclear weapons in West Germany riled many. The latter choice, in particular, prompted some of the largest protests the country had seen.
However, through it all, there was an underlying integrity to what Schmidt did that ensured he will be remembered as one of the most notable figures of post-Second World War European politics. This quality was summed up by Giovanni di Lorenzo, editor-in-chief at Die Zeit newspaper, where Schmidt served as a publisher for 32 years before his death at the age of 96.
“Schmidt was an interesting study on the difference between politicians and statesmen,” wrote di Lorenzo this week. “He wasn’t interested in the fleeting well-being of his party or even that of his government or himself. He was focused on finding solutions and remaining true to his principles, beneath which everything else was subordinated.”
Schmidt’s ability to see the bigger picture and to push narrow interests aside was evident in the role he played to help Greece to join what was then the European Economic Community in 1981. The late German politician’s part in this process is usually overshadowed by his French counterpart at the time, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
In Greece, at least, it is the Frenchman (who had built up a personal friendship with Greek prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis during his self-imposed exile in Paris) who is cast in the role of the great benefactor. This probably does not do justice to the part Schmidt and his government played in the enlargement process and in smoothing over the differences between Greece and the existing EEC members. In doing so, Schmidt had to overcome his own reservations about Greek membership.
In her recent book, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement, historian Eirini Karamouzi recounts that Schmidt identified three key problems to Greek entry: French and Italian concerns about agricultural exports, ongoing tension between Greece and Turkey and an influx of surplus labour into the EEC.
“We cannot let the number of foreigners in the Federal Republic of Germany rise,” said Schmidt. “The state of the labour market and the social infrastructure prohibit it. The movement of labour must remain limited.”
Even in today’s European Union, these phrases have a familiar ring, whether it is British Prime Minister expressing concerns about migration from other EU countries or a range of other leaders expressing alarm about the impact of the current influx of Syrian refugees.
What we are experiencing at the moment, though, is the politics of fear and timidity, which is evident in the general lack of willingness to tackle common challenges, be they of an economic or migratory nature. Too often over the last few years, leaders have turned in on themselves in an attempt to shut out these problems. They have cultivated prejudices and phobias rather than stand against them.
This is where Schmidt’s contribution is so valuable. He was more resolute than to be shoved one way and then the other by developments or the prevailing mood. When he needed to, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician had no qualms about showing his mettle.
In September 2012, Der Spiegel interviewed Schmidt and d’Estaing together. When the subject of the euro crisis came up, the former French leader revealed that he now believed it was wrong to allow Greece into the EEC and that Schmidt had been right to be cautious.
“To be perfectly frank, it was a mistake to accept Greece,” said d’Estaing. “Greece simply wasn’t ready. Greece is basically an Oriental country. Helmut, I recall that you expressed scepticism before Greece was accepted into the European Community in 1981. You were wiser than me.”
In the interview, however, Schmidt shows no sign of regretting his decision and identifies the EU’s expansion after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 as being a problem. In fact, over the last few years Schmidt had advocated holding a debt conference for Greece, similar to the one held for Germany after the Second World War. He also accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of lacking “helpfulness and sympathy” and called for Berlin to show more “solidarity” by reducing its current account surplus.
Schmidt proved that he was able to set aside the scepticism d’Estaing referred to when weighing up the prospect of Greece entering the EEC. In fact, it was under the German presidency in December 1979 that Greece reached an agreement with the EEC on some key terms of its accession, with German officials keeping talks alive at the 11th hour, when it seemed that the possibility of a deal had disappeared.
“For Germany it was the larger political and security issues that tipped the balance in favour of enlargement,” writes Karamouzi. “Politically, Schmidt’s government feared that a rejection of the Greek enlargement would endanger Karamanlis’s position domestically and subsequently affect the country’s orientation in terms of foreign policy.”
Given that he was born at the end of the First World War and fought in the Second World War, perhaps experiencing Europe’s most troubled periods first-hand, Schmidt was imbued with a greater awareness of the dangers of division than contemporary European politicians. Perhaps in the current unsettling times for Europe, Schmidt’s passing can remind us that when we step back and take a broad view of where we are and where we want to go, solutions can be found.
“There is a lack of momentum, such as we had 30 or 40 years ago, namely the absolute will of the French president and the German chancellor to work together – no matter what the problem is,” Schmidt told Der Spiegel in 2012. “As long as this will is not present, the technical tools are of secondary importance.”
Perhaps the late chancellor’s most valuable legacy for Europe will be to draw our attention to something right in front of us, that where there is a will there is a way.
You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis