BONN — German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has endured many insults during 11 years in office, but they usually come from fellow Germans. "I am attacked in Germany every day," Kohl said this week. "That is the way our constitutional system works."
But when a top Greek Foreign Ministry official recently mocked Germany as "a giant with bestial force and a child's brain," Kohl took offense, calling the remark "impolite" and "foolish" and having the Greek ambassador in Bonn summoned to give an explanation.
"There are no limits in public behavior," Kohl lectured at a news conference. "Everyone must know for himself how to behave."
Normally such a spat between the richest and poorest members of the European Community would pass as a harmless curiosity. But its timing and controversial backdrop have made it the chatter of diplomatic circles across the Continent.
On Jan. 1, Greece begins its six-month rotation as president of the 12-nation EC Commission, its first lock on the influential post since the return to power in Athens this fall of Socialist leader Andreas Papandreou.
The Greek Socialists earned a reputation among European partners in the 1980s as being disagreeable, confrontational and obstructionist, and there is growing anxiety in European capitals that a tumultuous half-year lies ahead.
"We are holding our breath," said one diplomat in Brussels, where the EC is headquartered. "The presidency of the commission sets the agenda for the member states, and we are hoping this isn't a sign of what's to come."
It was Theodore Pangalos, Papandreou's minister in charge of EC relations, who made the unflattering remarks about Germany. Although the Greek government insists Pangalos was not speaking in an official capacity, Pangalos has made no secret of his distrust of the Germans.
His insult was prompted by news reports that Germany and other EC members were planning to establish diplomatic relations with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia--and were secretly plotting to do so before Greece ascended to the commission presidency and could conceivably squelch the move.
"This is not the way the European Community is supposed to work," said Chares Orfanidis, spokesman for the Greek delegation in Brussels. "We don't like this happening just before Greece is to take the presidency. It seems some countries are trying to force things on others."
For two years, Greece has opposed any European overtures to its neighboring republic of 2 million Slavs and ethnic Albanians because of a bitter dispute over the name Macedonia. Greece says the name, as well as the use of Greek symbols on the republic's flag, is a threat to Greece's own northern province of Macedonia and could bring ethnic strife to its border.
So adamant are the Greeks in their position that the republic was admitted to the United Nations under the awkward temporary name of "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and is the only member without a flag flying outside U.N. headquarters in New York. The two countries have been trying to negotiate a compromise name ever since.
Although most European countries, including Germany, have officially recognized the republic, none have launched full diplomatic ties in deference to the Greeks. But Germans and others increasingly believe the republic can best be spared the bloodshed afflicting other former Yugoslav republics if links are built between it and stable European democracies.
The German argument is vehemently rejected in Athens, where officials accuse the Germans of wanting to dominate the region and blame Germany for the war-torn Balkans, charging that the country's rush to recognize breakaway republics of the former Yugoslav federation set off a powder keg. In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali last month, Greek Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias warned against making a similar mistake in Macedonia.
Normally, tiny Greece is no match for mighty Germany. But under EC rules, a tiny president wields the same power as a mighty one--in this case, at least for the next six months. As one worried German Foreign Ministry official said, "All we can do is wait and see."