Tue, Jan 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Merkel waxes as Blair and Chirac wane

The German chancellor's rising influence is helping create balance between Europe and the US


When German Chancellor Angela Merkel was sworn in 14 months ago, the first woman in the post, 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 US President George W. Bush, the 52-year-old Merkel 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 US 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 efforts in that region.

On a visit to Washington last week, Merkel won a pledge from Bush to focus more on the so-called quartet -- the US, the EU, Russia and the UN -- to promote peace talks 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 Berlin on Thursday.

Merkel's foray into the Middle East is one of several high-visibility initiatives by the chancellor as she assumes the rotating presidencies of the EU and the Group of 8 (G8) industrial nations.

At the top of Merkel's agenda, analysts say, 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 to 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," Merkel said, "and on the other side, America must also know that Europe is needed in many areas."

`The big player'

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

"She's the big player in Europe right now," said Kurt Volker, the Bush administration's principal 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 EU on a host of issues, from constraining Iran's nuclear ambitions to responding to Russia's recent showdown with Belarus over natural gas and oil shipments.

After the rupture between the US and much of Europe over the Iraq War, the Bush administration is also clearly relieved to find a German leader with whom it can have a civil relationship. Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, a strong opponent of the war, and Bush had little to say to each other after it began.

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

To some extent, analysts say, 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 US.

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