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Merkel rises, steady as she goes

Germany's chancellor gains stature with her quiet, deliberate ways.

February 05, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — She is at her most convincing beyond the camera's flash, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel can work a room, turning pragmatism into an erudite, diplomatic charm that has made her Europe's most commanding leader.

She is neither brash nor rash; as a student she deliberated 45 minutes before jumping off a diving board. But despite her quiet manner, Merkel is rising in stature as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac are set to leave office. She is not as telegenic as Blair, or as suave as Chirac, but her sober intellectual confidence is increasingly influential.

Berlin has improved ties with the Bush administration even though Merkel has refused to send troops to Iraq and has criticized the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. Her government is attempting to revive Middle East peace talks, negotiate an end to the crisis over Iran's uranium enrichment program, improve links with China and build a unified Europe less driven by the traditional German-French axis.

"She does not like grand visions. She's a pragmatic politician," said Gerd Langguth, who wrote a biography on Merkel in 2005. "The atmosphere of how Germany is talking to world leaders has changed. Blair is a political lame duck, so is Chirac. Italy and Spain are not very stable. So for the moment, the German chancellor is more important."

Merkel is using this clout to urge the continent's governments to be aggressive about reform and globalization, pushing especially for the loosening of regulations on business and the strengthening of transatlantic economic bonds to compete with India and other rising trading powers. She has cautioned Europe not to retract into a shell of protectionism.

The warning comes as the German economy is emerging from years of slow growth and high unemployment. Consumer confidence is up, and Germany, the world's third-largest economy, is benefiting from cuts to labor protection and social programs -- safety net elements that had been championed by Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. But Merkel, who has been in office 14 months, fears the momentum will slip if more reforms aren't passed to keep Germany competitive in global markets.

The chancellor leads a contentious coalition government whose liberals and conservatives have produced no significant domestic reforms. Such deadlock perhaps makes it politically safer for Merkel to dabble in the world's problems, such as meeting with rock star Bono at the recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland, than to try to calm angry pensioners or thousands of German doctors striking for higher salaries.

Merkel's prominence on the international stage follows Schroeder's insistence that the generation of Germany's politicians that came of age after World War II should reassert the nation's voice in world affairs. The two leaders' styles, however, are different; the current chancellor prefers backroom deliberations to public schmoozing, and bar graphs to catchy one-liners.

"I think Mrs. Merkel is more academic, looking at dossiers and acting only after she understands a problem," said Andreas Maurer, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Schroeder was much more oriented to media exercises ... and acted much more on emotions."

One of Merkel's foreign policy goals is a European Union that gives a more influential role to the newer, weaker members of the alliance. Once dominated by Paris and Berlin, the EU, which has grown to 27 countries, these days represents a continent of looser borders and more diverse voices.

Germany holds the EU's rotating presidency until July, and Merkel has been traveling to Western capitals, such as Brussels, and to former communist capitals, such as Prague, to find consensus on ratifying a European Constitution to fit everyone.

"The exclusivity of the Franco-German relationship is over," Maurer said. "Merkel is much more inclusive of other countries."

Berlin's strategy also has shifted toward Washington. Schroeder was a fierce critic of the Iraq war and other U.S. policies, but Merkel, who has met President Bush six times since 2005, has appeared more sensitive to European-American relations. The change indicates that the continent's ties to the United States, which were strong during the Cold War, are just as strategic in a new era of terrorism and globalization.

"The U.S. is still the European Union's most important trade partner," Merkel said in Switzerland. "We are also the most important investment partners for each other."

Security concerns have led the chancellor to be active in the Middle East. Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a key negotiator, along with counterparts on the U.N. Security Council, in the effort to defuse tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions. He also has been working with Washington, the United Nations, Russia and the EU to push for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

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