Cover Story -- Voices of the New Europe
ONLINE ORIGINAL: Guido Westerwelle/Germany: Reunification through Economics
Guido Westerwelle, 37, was brought up far from Berlin, in Germany's former capital of Bonn. Even at that remove, the Berlin Wall distorted his understanding of the world. "We never really thought much about Eastern Europe, even though it was just a few hundred kilometers away," he says.
But that all changed on Nov. 9, 1989. "The Wall fell, and suddenly we looked to places like Poland and Czechoslovakia," he recalls. "Our entire view of the international scene changed forever." So did domestic politics. "Overnight, the top priority became reunification and helping Eastern Germany," says Westerwelle, a lawyer by training who is now general secretary of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and a leading opposition member of Parliament. "And in many ways, of course, it still is."
When the Wall fell, the FDP, then part of Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union-led coalition government, supported the speedy integration of Eastern Germany into the Federal Republic. The key to that was the 1:1 exchange of Deutschemarks for far less valuable Eastmarks that took effect on July 1, 1990. Some economists warned that the exchange could harm Eastern German enterprises by making them less competitive.
Westerwelle supported the move enthusiastically. He still does. "Without it, the chance for reunification would have passed," he says. "The window of opportunity was only open for about one month, so we had to move very quickly." Partly because of Westerwelle's backing for the currency exchange, then-FDP leader Klaus Kinkel nominated him to become general secretary of the party in 1994. He entered Parliament the following year.
Although reunification has helped his career, Westerwelle admits that many things in the now-reunited Germany aren't positive, particularly the slow pace of job creation and the rising cost of the social security system. "As a nation, we need to become risk-takers," he says. "The fall of the Wall and the globalization that followed it show that there is no other way forward." Not for Germany, and not for Europe.By David Fairlamb in Frankfurt