Merkel emerges as a force in Europe

By Mark Landler
International Herald Tribune
With Britain and France both in political flux, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has emerged as the go-to person in Europe for Washington…

When Angela Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first female chancellor 14 months ago, she seemed less a phenomenon than a fluke — squeaking into office amid predictions that her government would be hobbled by internal problems and might soon collapse.

Now, with Britain and France both in political flux and with Merkel having forged a surprisingly warm relationship with President George W. Bush, the 52-year-old chancellor has emerged as the leading political actor in Europe — not to mention the go-to person in Europe for Washington.

It is no accident that when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wraps up a tour of the Middle East next week, her first stop will be Berlin, where she will brief Merkel on efforts to revive the peace process.

On a visit to Washington last week, Merkel persuaded Bush to reactivate the so-called Quartet, a group made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations that is trying to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“This enables the European Union, as a whole, to take on responsibility, and we want to take on responsibility for the Middle East process,” Merkel said in an interview here Thursday.

Her foray into the Middle East is one of several other high-visibility initiatives by Merkel; she is also assuming the rotating presidencies of the European Union and the Group of Eight industrial countries.

At the top of her agenda, analysts here said, is reinvigorating the Atlantic Alliance. Her first foreign trip after assuming the dual presidencies was to the White House, where she proposed creating a trans-Atlantic economic zone and pressed Bush on climate- change policies.

“I consider it my job to express in America what’s in the interest of Europe,” Merkel said. “And for me, the trans-Atlantic partnership, in general, is in the European interest. Europeans know that we cannot accomplish things without America, and on the other side, America must also know that Europe is needed in many areas.”

Merkel is getting a respectful hearing in Washington in part because she is the only leader of a big-three European nation who is likely to be around at the end of this year. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and President Jacques Chirac of France are in the waning months of their lengthy tenures.

“She’s the big player in Europe right now,” said Kurt Volker, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

The Bush administration, Volker said, viewed Merkel as the “anchor point” for its dealings with the European Union on a host of issues, from constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions to responding to Russia’s recent showdown with Belarus over natural gas shipments.

After the rupture between the United States and Europe over the war in Iraq, the Bush administration is clearly relieved to find a German leader with whom it can have a civil relationship. Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor, and Bush had little to say to each other after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Bush, who has met Merkel six times, regularly refers to her upbringing in the former East Germany, which they both say has given her a particular appreciation of freedom.

To some extent, analysts said, Merkel’s strength is a corollary of Bush’s weakness. There is historical precedent for a German leader to act boldly during a time of trouble in the United States.

“Thirty-five years ago, Willy Brandt reacted to Watergate and Vietnam by taking the initiative with his Ostpolitik,” said John Kornblum, once a U.S. ambassador to Germany. “Thirty-five years later, Merkel is doing the same thing with her own form of Westpolitik.”

Volker, however, cautioned against concluding that Merkel’s rising influence will iron out all the differences between the United States and Europe. “We have to be careful not to think this is a magic bullet,” he said. “There are limits to what anybody can do.”

Indeed, Merkel’s boldest trans-Atlantic initiative — an economic zone between Europe and the United States — has aroused little excitement in Washington, where the Bush administration is focused on salvaging the Doha Round of global trade negotiations.

Merkel is also unlikely to change the stance of Germany or France on the Iraq war. She declined to comment on Bush’s plan to commit more than 20,000 new American troops. “Next time,” she said with a smile, switching momentarily from German to English.

In general, Merkel deflected questions about her enhanced status. Even the venue for the meeting, with a small group of correspondents, seemed calculated to avoid pretense: a cramped conference room, down the hall from her cavernous office facing the domed Reichstag building.

But Merkel left no doubt she would push her ideas aggressively. Her trans- Atlantic economic proposal, which aims to harmonize American and European business regulations, is a case in point.

“In a world with rising economies like China, like India, like Latin America, we face completely different competition,” she said. “That suggests bundling our power, not falling back on protectionism, but bundling our power.”

Merkel expressed confidence that the United States had become more open-minded about polices to confront climate change, an issue she has put high on the G-8 agenda. Bush, in remarks after meeting Merkel, said it was time to move beyond “old, stale debates of the past.”

“I see a greater readiness than in previous years to confront climate and climate change,” Merkel said. “And I see good possibilities for cooperation in the area of energy efficiency,” as well as in bio-fuels.

American officials said they admired Merkel’s stern warning to Russia over its recent standoff with Belarus over natural gas shipments. Merkel has set herself apart from her predecessor, Schröder, who took pride in his friendship with President Vladimir Putin.

Asked if she seconded his assessment of Putin as a flawless democrat, she said, “I have not yet said that, and would also not say it now. I use the phrase strategic partnership with Russia.”

With Germany growing at its fastest clip in six years, Merkel’s government looks secure. The question, analysts here said, is whether she will have staying power on the global stage. Merkel professes not to be worried. “Fear,” she said, “is not a good political adviser.”