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Germany's Merkel is a leader to watch

Bast

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What can the world expect from Angela Merkel, Germany's mild-mannered chancellor?

She will be very much at the centre of attention in 2007, as she will chair the European Union for the next six months and the Group of Eight industrialised countries for the whole year.

These high-profile positions will give her a unique chance to leave her mark on international affairs.

She will be in the spotlight for two other reasons. She is the first woman chancellor of Germany - as significant a breakthrough for women in Western politics as was the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister of Britain a generation ago.

At the same time, two veteran male politicians - Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister for the past 10 years and Jacques Chirac, France's president for the past 12 years - will be passing from the political scene in the coming months. This will give Merkel more chances to shine.

Now 53, she was born in Hamburg in 1954, the daughter of a Protestant pastor who emigrated to Communist East Germany, where she grew up.

She learned Russian - a compulsory subject under the Communist regime - and studied physics, winning a doctorate, before going into politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The unification of Germany the following year gave her wider opportunities, culminating in her election as leader of the Christian Democrats in 2000 and chancellor in November 2005.

Women's era

Her rise heralds a new era for women in Western politics. In France, the socialist candidate Segolene Royal stands a strong chance of defeating her right-wing opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, at elections in May and becoming the first woman president of France.

In the United States, following the capture of the US Congress by the Democrats at the mid-term elections last November, Nancy Pelosi has become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives - a powerful position from she has already begun to challenge the Bush administration's policy in Iraq.

Merkel paid a brief visit to Washington last Thursday for a working dinner with President George W. Bush. She is a strong believer in rebuilding Europe's ties with the United States, which have been strained by the Iraq war.

Her big idea is a trans-Atlantic single market - that is to say a free trade agreement between the EU, the US and Canada, which would boost investment flows and trade between the world's biggest economic blocs.

Merkel holds the view that Europe can do nothing in the Middle East without US support. According to German sources, she sought two pledges from Bush on the Middle East: first, that he would not attack Iran; and second, that he would back a re-launch of the Middle East peace process.

On the first, she appears to have been unsuccessful - Bush remains under the influence of neo-conservative advisers, such as Eliott Abrams at the National Security Council, who advocate confrontation with Iran, including the possibility of military action.

On the peace process, however, Bush agreed to a revival of the Quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) and to another exploratory visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Merkel herself is planning a visit to the Middle East in February, and would like the Quartet to meet in Berlin before the end of this month.

Last Friday, Chirac backed Merkel's initiative. In a New Year address to foreign diplomats in Paris, he declared: "Let us propose through the Quartet an international conference of a new type which, without setting out to dictate terms of a settlement to the parties, would provide the guarantees to which they aspire."

Moves such as these by Merkel and Chirac - and also by Blair on his recent visit to the Middle East - point to growing pressure for an international conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all. But there are formidable obstacles.

Effort needed

Israel is in no mood to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians and to Syria; Israel's friends in Washington remain very powerful, not least in the Democratic Party; neither Bush nor Chirac is yet ready to talk to Syria; while Merkel, because of the history of Germany's oppression of the Jews, will not press Israel hard on any subject.

Nevertheless, there is a growing sense that an effort must be made to prevent the many conflicts and crises in the Middle East - whether to do with Iraq, Iran, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories- from spinning out of control and threatening the security of the whole world.

Merkel has many other priorities apart from the Middle East. She wants to forge a strong working relationship with Russia - which supplies 40 per cent of Germany's gas imports - while deploring Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian style. She would like the EU to agree on a joint energy policy to safeguard future supplies.

Above all, she wants the EU to try again to reach agreement on a constitutional treaty, necessary for the proper function of a bloc which, with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on January 1, now has 27 member states with a combined population of 500 million.

This would be a heavy agenda for any leader, but those who know Merkel say that she is a good deal tougher and more determined than her gentle, low-key appearance would suggest.

Long but interesting read. I like her. I wasn't sure about her in the beginning but I think she's a good leader and it's interesting to see how she develops.

Source: http://www.gulfnews.com/opinion/editorial_opinion/world/10095223.html
 
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