The consensus among Berlin’s foreign-policy pundits today is that Angela Merkel has finally met her nemesis. Come next week, George W. Bush, the man she tried to make into a friend, will topple the German chancellor from her pedestal. She will be queen of Europe no more.
By rejecting Berlin’s climate proposals at the Group of Eight summit, which Ms Merkel is hosting at Heiligendamm, the US president will end the chancellor’s long string of foreign policy successes, they say.
Bizarrely, she is being compared both to Tony Blair, who embraced Mr Bush and got scorn in return, and to Gerhard Schröder, her predecessor, who pledged “unlimited solidarity” with the US after 9/11 only to take the lead in Europe’s opposition to the Iraq war.
Some of the praise that has greeted Ms Merkel’s skilful steps on the world stage over the past six months was hyperbolic, if not patronising. But conversely, it seems she is now being buried too hastily, for in some significant respects she may return strengthened from Heiligendamm.
There are sizeable caveats: if the yardstick of Germany’s diplomatic success is its ability, as current president of the G8, to rally others to its views, then the summit is shaping up as a flop.
In the past few weeks, American negotiators have rejected all of Berlin’s suggestions for the G8’s climate communiqué. There is to be no recognition that global warming should be limited to 2°C and no commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent of their 1990 level by 2050. In fact, there are to be no quantifiable targets for temperature, emissions or anything else.
Worse, Mr Bush’s apparent U-turn on climate this week landed on Ms Merkel like a slap in the face. By calling on the world’s biggest polluters to discuss emission targets, Mr Bush not only crossed the German chancellor’s only red line on the matter – her insistence that all such international initiatives should remain embedded in the United Nations-led Kyoto process, not compete with it – but he did so knowingly, since US negotiators had already floated his idea in Berlin and met with a German rebuke last week.
Although the summit looks likely to deliver a fudged communiqué on climate, Ms Merkel may in fact emerge reinforced because of the coincidence of timing that put her in the chair of both the G8 and the European Union this year – the EU six-month presidency ends next month.
At the next quarterly EU summit, starting on June 21, she will seek to craft an agreement among the EU’s 27 member states on reviving the union’s constitutional treaty. Reconciling their contradictory views will require feats of diplomatic acrobatics and great authority, and this is where Mr Bush can help.
Consider the EU-Russia summit of two weeks ago. On paper, it was a pathetic failure. Negotiations about renewing a partnership agreement between the two could not even begin and Ms Merkel and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, ended up curtly swapping accusations and counter-accusations on camera over human rights.
As a result, however, Germany saw its credit with the Baltic states, Poland and the Czech Republic soar. This was a big change from a week earlier – when the Lithuanian and German ambassadors to the EU swapped angry words over Russia – and one achieved without sacrificing the fundamentals of Germany’s Russia policy.
Do not expect a similar exchange with Mr Bush at Heiligendamm. Ms Merkel will bend over backwards not to humiliate the US president. But she will stick to her climate proposals as agreed at the last European summit in March. She will not get her original communiqué, but she will use the chair’s conclusions, a separate document, to restate her, and the EU’s, original goals. Like the EU-Russia summit, the G8 summit, though a failure, would thus have boosted Ms Merkel’s credibility vis-a-vis her EU counterparts as a loyal, reliable partner. This does not make the constitution a done deal, but it is hard to imagine how it could damage her: something similar is bound to take place in Germany itself.
The ultimate goal of any elected ruler is to be re-elected. This is particularly true of Ms Merkel, who heads an unwieldy grand coalition with her rival Social Democrats, which she never wanted and is hoping to ditch for a more natural alliance with the free-market FDP after the next general election.
In Germany, as nearly everywhere in the world, nothing can boost a politician’s ratings like a dispute with Mr Bush. Ms Merkel will not return from Heiligendamm a victor, but she will have expanded her territory. The economic reformer, the champion of climate protection, the advocate of globalisation with a human face, and now the courageous leader who will neither kowtow to Mr Putin nor bend before Mr Bush, she is quietly pushing the Social Democrats towards the edge of the political terrain.
By September 2009, at the very latest, Ms Merkel will run for re-election. She can hardly expect to maintain her personal ratings – well into the 70s, a figure unheard of for a chancellor – that long, but hers is no bad position to start from. And by the time she runs, a new American president will have taken his – or her – oath. And there will be just enough time left to clinch a deal on a post-Kyoto protocol.
The writer is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief
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