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German reunification takes center stage

In the midst of a busy week pushing German reunification and at the end of an even busier day, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to dinner with French President Francois Mitterrand in Paris on Thursday night just to reassure him yet again that the Germans still love Western Europe. The pace of German reunification has surprised nobody more than the French, whose master plan for economic and political union has been thrown into disarray and uncertainty.

Officially, Mitterrand and other officials go out of their way to welcome the unity of the two Germanys. But the fears of German domination and declining French influence you hear around dinner tables are real.

In the short run, the massive problems of bringing the two Germanys together are bound, say the worriers, to distract German attention from the goals of the 12-nation European Community for a single market by the end of 1992.

In the not-much-longer run, they say, the sheer weight of a united Germany is bound to dominate the continent. After East Germany is swallowed, the enlarged state might turn its attention to the markets of Eastern Europe. And Germany might become neutral, leaving the other countries of Europe to face a German economic superpower and a Soviet military superpower at the same time.

The way it was supposed to have happened is that the European Community (EC) would have achieved a single market and closer political union long before German reunification became an issue sometime late in the decade. Germany would have provided the economic muscle, France the brains. If a stubborn Margaret Thatcher refused to come along, so much the worse for Britain.

Well before unification, West Germany would have been firmly anchored not only militarily in the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but in a Western Europe that was a single economic market and more politically united.

More recently, as Communist governments collapsed in Eastern Europe, German reunification and EC unity were supposed to move forward hand in hand. Even as West Germany rushed forward, it was calling back reassurances over its shoulder.

The upshot of the Kohl-Mitterrand dinner Thursday night was that the chancellor agreed to a special EC summit meeting on German reunification in April, a month after the March 18 elections in East Germany, to deal with some of the fears.

Kohl also confirmed his agreement for a pet project of Mitterrand's _ an EC conference beginning in December to plan for an EC Central Bank and common currency, the core of Mitterrand's dispute with Britain's Thatcher largely forgotten in the rush of events in Eastern Europe.

But Kohl again politely shook his head at French requests to hold that conference earlier. And while Kohl also supported another Mitterrand idea for a "confederation" of countries in both Western Europe and Eastern Europe, this is far down the road while German unity is almost upon us.

Finally, Kohl again ruled out the idea of German neutrality. "Neither I nor a majority of Germans will accept a neutral Germany," he was quoted as saying. The doubt about this is the doubt Kohl will win the West German elections at the end of this year. A Germany led by the rival Social Democratic Party might not have Kohl's strong commitment to the NATO alliance.

Kohl has given the same assurances time and again, and the French and Germany's other neighbors seem to need them. Probably the most concerned of all is Poland, which demands to be included in all talks about a united Germany on the grounds that it was the first victim of World War II and the one whose border with Germany would be the first to be called in question.

Kohl may be on solid legal grounds in saying, as he did again here, that he cannot give guarantees about the borders on behalf of a Germany yet to be reunited. But this public reticence only adds to the worry.

My own guess is that many, if not most, of the fears about Germany are exaggerated. While the Germans are increasingly going to resent hearing them, it's best to be frank about them. The big question is the German neutrality that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev continues to call for in the face of Western demands that Germany remain a member of NATO.

On other issues Gorbachev may have caved, to use the flippant and arrogant language sometimes heard in Washington. On this gut issue, he has strong support at home and can hope for a future German audience.

In any case, however much the French and others fret, German reunification is fast outrunning the unification of Western Europe.

Wilbur G. Landrey is chief correspondent fo the St. Petersburg Times.

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