An ending was close at the European Summit in Cardiff this past week. Not that of Britain's six-month presidency; something altogether weightier. It was the likely departure of Chancellor Helmut Kohl from the political stage.
This is not to denigrate Britain's presidency, only to put it in perspective. It was not distinguished by much; it could not be. Sidelined from the central action - the creation of European monetary union - competence and a low profile was as much as the government could be expected to muster.
Kohl is very important. He can be credited with three large achievements. First, he has retained and consolidated Germany's position as the leading European economy and done so, moreover, while preserving most elements of the social state which is supported by all the main German parties. This has not been without large strains: Germany's relatively slow adaptation to global pressures, coupled with a recession, has led to higher unemployment figures than at any time since the war. But as recovery gathers pace on the Continent, unemployment will fall and the underlying strength of the German economy will become apparent once more.
Second, he has presided over a unification of his country about which many, including the social democratic opposition, were hugely sceptical. It is a sign of that achievement that we have forgotten how contested it was, and how much support he had to mobilise inside and outside Germany; he drew the support of George Bush, conquered Frangois Mitterrand's reservations and failed with Margaret Thatcher, but isolated her.
Finally, he set a strategic course for monetary union, and achieved that, too. …