Alexa

Newly confident Germany takes over EU presidency, G-8 chair

Newly confident Germany takes over EU presidency, G-8 chair

For Germany, 2006 was a year of unexpected successes: Its economy started booming after years of stagnation, its soccer team reached the semifinal of the World Cup, and its untested new leader Angela Merkel proved herself to be a stateswoman to be reckoned with.
Now, expectations are high that Germany will be able to translate that momentum into results when it takes over the leadership of the European Union and the chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrial powers on Jan. 1.
Germany has long contented itself to being an economic powerhouse while remaining merely a loyal team player in international politics through NATO and the EU _ a reticence partly rooted in its Nazi past. But it has shown itself to be increasingly ready to get involved on the world stage _ with Merkel launching diplomatic initiatives on everything from Middle East peace to resolving the EU's budget dispute last year.
The dual G-8 and EU responsibilities give Germany a chance to play its strongest diplomatic role in years as a leader of key multinational forums.
But the challenges are daunting. The EU will look to Germany for direction on how to revive the moribund draft constitution, deal with Russia's growing influence as a major energy power, and shore up European competitiveness.
The hype has already prompted Berlin to warn that it won't be able to solve all of the EU's problems during its six-month turn at the helm.
"I will say right off: We won't work any miracles in these six months," said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso pushed expectations further when he said Sunday that Merkel could be "something like the Juergen Klinsmann of politics," referring to Germany's hugely popular former national soccer coach who led his team to the World Cup semifinal.
But Europe's troubles are deep-rooted, too, and perhaps as a result the 52-year-old former scientist seems keen to lower expectations.
Merkel has made it clear that the future of the planned EU constitution _ stuck in political limbo since its rejection by voters last year in France and the Netherlands _ will not be resolved finally until France's EU presidency in 2008.
"The responsibility that we have is clear," Merkel told parliament. "But I also want at this point to say clearly: This will be a process that will not be ended during our presidency."
Still, Germany takes over at what seems a favorable moment in many ways.
The German economy will grow by around 2.5 percent this year, economists say, after several years of stagnation. Unemployment remains high, but it is headed downward and has fallen below 10 percent for the first time since 2002. It currently stands at 9.6 percent.
Merkel enhanced her standing as an EU leader last year by helping to shape an EU budget compromise.
And there is a new willingness in Berlin to get involved in risky areas such as the Middle East. German warships are steaming off the coast of Lebanon in the country's biggest naval deployment since World War II.
The government appears likely to send Tornado reconnaissance jets to strengthen its contribution to security in Afghanistan, where some 2,900 German troops are serving _ signs that taboos about military deployments, a legacy of World War II and the Nazi past, are fading.
Merkel, in office for 13 months, remains a fresh face compared to France's Jacques Chirac and Britain's Tony Blair _ and she enjoys cordial relations with U.S. President George W. Bush.
She leads a left-right coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, meaning broad support for her government _ but only if the partners can agree. Consequently, she has made "kleine Schritte," or "small steps" her motto in trying to reform Germany. The government has moved to reduce and simplify corporate tax, winning approval from business groups, and is getting Germany's budget deficit under control after exceeding EU limits for years.
Merkel uses similarly modest language regarding EU issues, for example describing as "resolute but prudent" the EU's tough stance toward Turkey's membership bid. The EU froze some of its membership negotiating topics after Ankara refused to open its ports to trade from EU member Cyprus.
Eberhard Sandschneider, an expert at German Council on Foreign Relations, said that several factors will limit what Merkel can do.
One of the most important is France's election of a new president in May, just weeks before the presidency ends. Blair also is on his way out at some point in 2007 after a party mutiny forced him to set a timeframe for stepping down.
"You have to have active partners, and two of the biggest countries are going through lame-duck periods," Sandschneider said.
One issue where Merkel has said she expects quick progress is in getting Poland to drop its veto of a negotiating mandate for a new EU cooperation agreement with Russia. Poland has blocked the start of talks over a Russian embargo of its meat.
But solving the meat dispute and moving ahead with talks will be the easy part.
There's no consensus in Europe on exactly how to approach Moscow and how hard a line to take on human rights.
Those concerns vie with a need for good relations and an effort to reach an understanding with Moscow about reliable energy supplies. Gas-consuming countries were unnerved by Russia's aggressive behavior during a brief shut-off of gas to Ukraine last winter in a price dispute; Russian gas company Gazprom has threatened to cut off gas to Belarus on Monday in another dispute.
"The biggest problem for Germany's EU presidency right now in my assessment is that expectations are running wildly too far concerning what one country can do during a relatively short six-month period," Sandschneider said.
"We will not be able to see any wonders happening just because German is in the driver's seat of the European Union," he added. "All these problems have been there for years."