Germany's role grows as agenda-setter

Chancellor Merkel gets high marks as Germany prepares to lead the EU next year and host the G-8 summit.

Anyone looking for evidence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's greater visibility on the world stage need only check her agenda this week.

Two days after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Sunday, in which the two discussed Middle East peace, Israeli president Ehud Olmert stopped by the Chancellery.

"She seems to me to be one of the most serious and responsible leaders that Europe has had in years," Mr. Olmert told Der Spiegel.

Many foreign capitals share that sentiment. And next year, Ms. Merkel's role will broaden as Germany assumes the European Union presidency and prepares to host the annual G-8 summit.

Her fast-won reputation as a negotiator and partner on the world stage, her country's strength in the EU, and the upcoming departures of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have left many with high hopes that Berlin can set an agenda that provides Europe with some much-needed harmony.

"The timing is good," says Henning Riecke, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Europe needs some fresh impulses."

Indeed, the continent finds itself adrift, grappling with everything from energy security to salvaging the EU constitution, the blueprint for an expanded Europe rejected by French and Dutch voters last year. In the Middle East, leaders have also not been shy in wishing for Merkel's active involvement in the region, where both she and her country are seen as fair brokers.

Many observers who considered Merkel stiff and inexperienced were stunned by the ease with which she connected with her counterparts in Paris, Washington, Moscow, and Jerusalem earlier this year. While not drastically changing the foreign-policy course set by her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, she has replaced his emphasis on emotional, personal ties with a sort of friendly distance.

Raised in a former communist regime, she's able to share George W. Bush's fervor for freedom and still criticize US policy in Guantánamo Bay. In fluent Russian, she can praise Germany's close partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then raise questions about Moscow's treatment of NGOs and the deaths of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

The result, says Hans-Ulrich Klose, a foreign policy expert in the Social Democratic Party, is a head of state who can boast solid relationships with leaders in Washington, Europe, and the Middle East – vital assets in the months ahead.

"She addresses critical topics ... but she doesn't do it in the way that the person across from her feels challenged or hurt," says Mr. Klose. "She's not a confrontational person."

Her enthusiasm for the EU constitution has given advocates hope that, even with French elections delaying a final decision, she can reinvigorate the constitutional process. "I think they'll try and create a work plan ... and then throw the ball into the French field," says Mr. Riecke.

A more imminent concern is the lack of an energy security agreement with Russia. Europe is heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, which make up close to 40 percent of its energy supply, and wants to ensure that the price dispute between Ukraine and Russia that left the former Soviet republic without heat last winter isn't repeated elsewhere in Europe.

Moscow has refused European requests to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty, a 1994 agreement that regulates energy supply and access. The EU, for its part, still hasn't renewed the decade-old partnership pact with Russia. Poland, citing a dispute with Moscow over meat imports, vetoed the document, which also regulates energy, at an EU-Russia summit in November.

Following a meeting with Polish President Lech Kaczyinski earlier this month, Merkel and Mr. Chirac promised to mediate between the two sides. But analysts are skeptical that Merkel can coax Mr. Putin into signing the energy treaty.

The Putin-Merkel "relationship is going to have to be handled very adroitly, and they will have to try and develop it in a way that will allow them to argue about energy ... but at the same time keep Russia in the tent and not alienate it," says Jackson Janes, executive director for the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.

In addition to energy, Russia's close relations with Tehran could also be of help in another issue that could command the agenda both in Europe and at the G-8 summit.

Winning Russia's support for a revised UN resolution, circulated by Germany, France, and Great Britain last week, is crucial if the West hopes to speak with one voice on Iran's nuclear program, say experts.

Klose also sees room for Berlin to help out the idea, floated by the Baker report, of involving Syria in a solution to Iraq's violence and other problems in the Middle East. The country's loyalty to Israel is respected by the Arab world because Berlin has also been a strong advocate for Palestinian statehood.

"German policy (in the region) has a certain believability," says Klose. "That's a good basis from which to start."

Europe is "yearning for someone to breathe impulses," says Riecke. "I think the Germans are nervous; they want to calm the expectations. But they also want to keep some of the optimism."

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