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Astute and gentle
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first six months in office

Klaus Dirscherl, igadi.org, 15/05/2006
 
 

  Angela Merkel, clic para aumentar
And one can bet that for Angela Merkel too, the day will arrive when she can no longer be satisfied with only the praise of her international partners, be it Putin or Bush. She will have to begin to convince the Germans themselves that her government has achieved more than a change in political style and a warming up of old international friendships that have turned slightly rusty in Schroeder’s time.
 
As if the world needed reminding, almost six months into her chancellorship, Angela Merkel’s trip to the US this week underlined again that she is a politician who gets what she wants, seemingly without having to ruffle feathers to achieve it. Summing up the chancellor’s qualities, George W. Bush said simply “I’m talking (here) to a very sophisticated leader”. That sophistication showed as Ms Merkel, on her second trip to Washington since becoming chancellor, was able calmly to tick off as successes her goals for the trip – to reinforce her close working relationship with Mr Bush; to lobby him not to move too quickly against Iran on its nuclear programme; and to impress the swelled ranks of business leaders and others in the US who are fascinated by Germany’s new female, eastern German chancellor.

Take Iran, the trip’s dominant agenda item. Before leaving Berlin, Ms Merkel’s chief foreign policy adviser said the goal was to urge the US to stick to a steady step-by-step approach that would keep key allies such as Russia and China on board as long as possible. Ms Merkel reported to Mr Bush on her talks a week earlier with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and while she told close colleagues that she was uncomfortable with the suggestion that she was becoming a mediator on the Iran issue –she is also travelling to China in two weeks time– she did reinforce Germany’s role as a key player in efforts to defuse tensions over Iran, experts said. Another positive result of her US trip was no doubt that Mr Bush agreed to visit Germany in mid-July, visiting the chancellor’s electoral constituency in former communist eastern Germany. For Ms Merkel personally her roots are of little importance, having been a western German politician for the last 16 years. Even new opinion poll ratings giving her a record 72 cent support, are unlikely to distract the new German leader.

The opposition claims on the other hand, that Angela Merkel has basically built up this all-embracing support because she avoids action, and prefers to listen instead of to perform. Indeed one of her outstanding qualities seems to be her capacity to seek good advice from others and assemble around her a team of rather discreet consultants. This no doubt is particularly noticeable after her predecessor’s rather more spectacular way of governing the country. However, her apparently more modest style of directing the cabinet and the country is quite obviously more acknowledged by Germany’s international partners than by the opposition parties and public opinion within the country. As satirical programmes about her political performance would phrase it: “she is better than expected”.

Indeed, after the blockage that characterized the last months of Schroeder’s ‘red and green’ government and after the near blockage produced by the election results that finally led to the formation of a so-called ‘grand’ coalition between the two most potent parties and opponents, the centre-left Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats, public opinion in Germany would have accepted any move that unlocked the political standstill so characteristic of German politics in the last year.

No doubt great hopes have been placed on this still amazing coalition between on the one hand ecologically minded trade union supporters and on the other side stern liberal politicians favouring an almost uncontrolled opening of markets and labour markets in a globalized world. But both partners discovered their common interests and set up an apparently well balanced government, which more often than not hides its conflicts behind the cabinet’s doors, and -thanks to Angela Merkel’s almost invisibly directing hand- has opted for a policy of rather ”smaller steps of progress” (in her own words) avoiding –so far at least– spectacular decisions. Although everybody in Germany is convinced that these big decisions –which will be mainly financial cuts– will have to be decided one day.

This is why German public opinion keeps reminding Angela Merkel of the big issues which need urgent solution and which alone seemed to justify such an exceptional form of governments as a ‘grand’ coalition, that is:

  • the radical reform of the increasingly deficitarian German health system,

  • original ideas for a new pensioners scheme that remains financially acceptable in a society obviously getting drastically older,

  • and the simplification of the more and more unruly federal system that is losing its attractiveness and its practicality in an ever growing European Union.

None of these big issues has so far been solved. And one can bet that for Angela Merkel too, the day will arrive when she can no longer be satisfied with only the praise of her international partners, be it Putin or Bush. She will have to begin to convince the Germans themselves that her government has achieved more than a change in political style and a warming up of old international friendships that have turned slightly rusty in Schroeder’s time.


Klaus Dirscherl (University of Passau).

 
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