Saving the World Merkel, the Queen of Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is often inscrutible. But her diplomatic deftness managed to get 27 European leaders to agree to a far-reaching climate policy. She has made the European stage her own.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed out of her league at the beginning of the EU summit in Brussels last week. Turned out, she wasn't.
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed out of her league at the beginning of the EU summit in Brussels last week. Turned out, she wasn't.

Angela Merkel is relentlessly Angela Merkel, even when she is experiencing what others might celebrate as a triumph. A small glimmer of joy on her otherwise exhausted-looking face was all she could muster at a press conference after the European Union summit in Brussels last Friday. Her reserve was especially conspicuous next to the visible glow on the face of José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission -- he was seated next to Merkel and was soaking in the satisfaction of emerging from this meeting as a winner.

Barroso called it a "historic" moment. Merkel, for her part, said she was "very pleased." She then proceeded to spend the next hour seemingly displaying her lack of enthusiasm, as if to show that in light of the situation, the only politician to be trusted is one who keeps her own personal climate in check at all times.

The victory was a meaningful one. The EU plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 percent by 2020, as compared to 1990 emissions. It also hopes to increase renewable energy's share of total energy production to 20 percent by 2020. The fact that Europe's heads of state gave their firm commitment to achieving these goals at the Brussels meeting of the European Commission is due in large part to the efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But a triumph in politics usually lasts about as long as it takes for someone to ask the first good question. And it didn't take long on Friday. Just when all the tough questions seemed to have been dealt with at the Brussels press conference, the bombshell was dropped: What exactly did the chancellor and German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück imagine the Brussels resolutions would cost -- millions, billions, trillions?

It'll work out

Steinbrück -- whose own personal climate runs the gamut from ice age to overheated -- first turned ashen before being unable to suppress a grin. Steinbrück's body language seemed to be saying: It's going to cost us a heap of money, but don't believe for a minute that I would be stupid enough to say as much. Merkel jumped to his support by offering an evasive answer to the question: Don't worry, it'll all work out.

Merkel clearly had no intention of allowing anyone to spoil her shining moment and, as she knows, the Brussels resolution will raise many other hard-hitting questions: Will it be enough? How much of a burden will individual countries bear in the end? Does the EU even have the authority to implement this sort of resolution? Many of the issues surrounding the decree remain unresolved. In that sense Merkel, a master of the wrong facial expression, had it right this time. A triumph that deserves to be called a triumph is a final resolution, but Brussels was merely a beginning -- a double beginning at best.

It appears that Merkel has finally found an issue of her own in a chancellorship that so far has seemed bland and lacking in contours and clear lines. Merkel's moment seemed to have arrived in February, together with the report issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), which finally managed to deliver a message that had long been ignored: The earth is getting warmer and will become a less pleasant place as a result. Human society and its penchant for spewing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from its smokestacks and exhaust pipes is at least partly to blame.

Merkel is no different from the many others who ignored the warning signs for years. But now, in her role as EU president for the first half of 2007, she is reinventing herself as the forerunner of the delayed-reaction camp. That she has now landed her first success can be explained at least partly by her subdued style -- the antithesis of a personality cult. She doesn't need the kind of self-congratulatory rhetoric for which her predecessor Gerhard Schröder was known. In fact, Merkel has no objection to coming across as weak. Perhaps it is even part of a strategy to make others seem stronger in her presence than they really are.

Charm offensive

Like French President Jacques Chirac. No one is more adept at using dignified courtesy to put others in their place. In Brussels he seemed intent on constantly overwhelming Merkel with a charm offensive.

More than simply kissing her hand at every opportunity, Chirac consistently made sure that he was the one escorting the German chancellor into the meeting room -- skillfully using a prime photo opportunity to his advantage. He would then show her the way to her seat and gently push her in the right direction. Whenever the two leaders spoke it seemed that one was a person and the other a state -- a rather pompous state at that. Merkel, of course, was the person, and sometimes the dove. She seems to be quite good at coming across as small and insignificant.

Nevertheless, Merkel managed to prevail when it came to most of her positions. Chirac was skeptical about binding targets and had the support of almost 10 other countries. Merkel met with Chirac privately at the beginning of the conference, and by the time it was over she had a concession over nuclear power that doesn't hurt her personally: In the future, the decision over whether to use nuclear power will continue to be up to each member state. In return for Merkel's concession, Chirac agreed to support Merkel's main undertaking and accept binding targets. It was a painless compromise for Merkel.

Europe is a stage to which Merkel is better suited than her German stage. What is interpreted as a weakness at home -- this vacillation between possible positions and this stoic equanimity -- is an advantage in Europe. Twenty-seven kings came together in Brussels last week, and each of them wanted to be treated like royalty. Gerhard Schröder, a man who fit the mold of the hero politician to a T, was only capable of recognizing the leaders of other major countries as his equals. Others he saw as inferior, which sometimes bent them out of shape.

French President Jacques Chirac turned on the charm.
DPA

French President Jacques Chirac turned on the charm.

Merkel's composure encountered its first major challenge as she stood behind the door of the Justus Lipsius European Council building to greet her 26 European counterparts as they gradually drifted into the room. For the next three-quarters of an hour, Europe seemed ungovernable, as opulent limousines pulled up outside and the flags of the member states hung inside as tightly as summer dresses on a sale rack. She greeted her colleagues -- a sea of almost exclusively men in dark suits -- in a flurry of "hellos" and "see yous," the expression on her face occasionally revealing a touch of bewilderment over the identity of the men coming into the room.

Turned up a notch

And could one really blame her were she to confuse the Maltese head of state with the Cypriot one? And many had issues they urgently wanted to discuss with the chancellor -- and expected her to take their concerns just as seriously as those of Jacques Chirac or British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Somehow, though, Merkel managed to give everyone the sense that they were significant.

The tension was turned up a notch when Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president, walked into the room. The Poles and the Germans have recently been discovering all kinds of reasons to be upset with one another. But Merkel seemed to ooze good will, and Kaczynski could almost have been excused for feeling comfortable in the company of this German woman.

The two leaders discovered a bond when Kaczynski told the chancellor stories about his days in the Solidarnosc trade union movement. Although Merkel was not a member of the opposition movement herself, their shared memory of an era when freedom was not a recognized right created common ground. Indeed, Merkel found herself in the unique position of having something very important in common with all of her European counterparts.

During this drawn-out welcome ceremony, it became clear that there are currently two types of politician in Europe: the ones called to the profession and the ones surprised by it. The former are the Western Europeans like Chirac, Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who posed for photos between the flags with the kind of self-assurance that suggests that Europe was created for them. The surprised politicians were the Eastern Europeans, the ones who can hardly believe that they are now active participants in the EU. While a man like Blair strode self-confidently toward the chancellor, the Romanians and the Bulgarians walked as cautiously as if they expected a barrier to suddenly spring up, blocking their path.

Kings of the West, Kings of the East

Merkel has the advantage of having a foot in both camps. She is a child of Eastern Europe, and yet she has quickly made Western Europe her own as the German chancellor. She is accepted by the kings of the West, and she knows the weaknesses of the kings of the East.

When the conference began, the heads of state, together with the foreign and finance ministers, sat down at a table that in reality consisted of at least six tables. The facility lacked a table that could accommodate 80 people. The attendees sat in front of monitors that enabled them to recognize the respective speakers from across a vast, white expanse of space that bore a distinct similarity to an ice hockey rink.

It wasn't the kind of venue that lends itself to talking with one another, and yet talking was what everyone wanted. At 7:30 p.m. during the first working meeting on Thursday, Merkel said that there were still 14 people left on her list of speakers. The group photo was scheduled for 8 p.m., but what sort of a king would be content with only two minutes at the podium? One of Europe's famous delays ensued.

The mood was constructive, as always. But, as it turns out, Luxembourg doesn't have enough space to grow crops for biofuel, the Czech Republic doesn't have enough wind for turbines and it's too cloudy in Poland for solar panels.

Problems to be ironed out, but -- and this everyone could agree on -- even leading politicians need to eat, and dinner was served on schedule, at 9:00 p.m. At the 11:00 p.m. press conference, Merkel said that she was hopeful. Officials had been working on a draft resolution for hours. A compromise document was worked out by 1:30 a.m. and was sent to all delegations by 6:00 a.m. Merkel announced that she would be available for meetings in the presidential suite between 9 and 10 a.m.

Getting things done

The Austrians met with Merkel, followed by the Czechs and the Spaniards. Everyone showed up with suggested changes, but fortunately the suggestions were minor. Negotiators were dispatched to determine whether the other delegates were willing to accept the changes.

The heads of state came together for their second working meeting at 10 a.m. They reviewed the final document item by item and soon came to an agreement. The closing press conference began 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and suddenly the European Union seemed eminently capable of getting things done.

Reaching decisions is sometimes easier for the EU than for a national government. The business of politics becomes most challenging when the painful consequences of political decisions are most immediate and palpable. The painful consequences of the kind of resolution that was adopted last week are not immediately palpable. The resolution stands on its own, neatly fulfilling its role as a contribution to saving the world. But it doesn't take long before the European Commission must negotiate with the organization's newer members to define their individual contributions. The pain becomes more palpable, the skirmishes with lobbying groups and political opponents begin, and the kings of Brussels must prove themselves to be true kings, monarchs capable of asking their subjects to make the necessary sacrifices for the common good.

Only at this stage will it become clear whether Merkel has achieved more than a diplomatic coup in Brussels. Her chancellorship will only acquire definitive contours if she manages to develop her ambitious national environmental plan and prevail against individual interests. This is when she will encounter those bothersome people who want to dispute her right to the chancellorship -- people who don't exist in Brussels.

Interestingly enough, the issue of the environment takes Angela Merkel back to the almost forgotten starting point of her chancellorship. When Merkel campaigned on the platform that Germans would have to learn to tighten their belts, she was widely viewed as Germany's future Maggie Thatcher. In return, voters punished her with the Grand Coalition -- pairing Germany's two largest political parties -- a form of captivity in its own right. Saddled with the Social Democrats as coalition partners, she was quickly forced to abandon any aspirations to becoming a Thatcher, even on a smaller scale.

Sacrifice

Her chancellorship seemed doomed to fail from the start. But Merkel has been lucky enough to be in office in an improving economic environment, making the kinds of large-scale, structured reforms the Grand Coalition is hardly in a position to achieve seem no longer as urgent. In addition, the beginning of the 21st century is proving to be more and more of a nervous era. It is an age governed by fear -- fear of terrorism, of climate change and of decline. Society looks to the state for protection, even for its youngest members. This is a paradigm shift that Merkel has cleverly integrated into her political life. When she was playing the role that brought her comparisons with Thatcher, she wanted less government intervention. Now that will likely be reversed, as the Brussels resolutions call for new guidelines for the economy and society, whether we like it or not.

But government handouts are not the issue, sacrifice is -- an inescapable reality for Merkel. If she hopes to become a politician with a clear identity, Merkel will have to be a politician willing to make sacrifices. Prevention can also be painful, something Chancellor Merkel neglected to mention in Brussels. Instead she spoke of opportunities, as politicians like to do. She said that jobs would be created if Europe promotes renewable energy and captures world markets with new technologies. But a 20 percent decrease in greenhouse gases and a 20 percent increase in renewable energy will come at a cost to affluence, partly because it will lead to rises in the costs of electricity and transportation.

It has long been clear -- and the press conference in Brussels made it even more apparent -- that captivating her audience is not Angela Merkel's strength. Her opportunity is dependability, and from dependability grows the confidence that this chancellor can be a leader, even in sacrifice.

But the soothing rhetoric at which Angela Merkel proved herself to be adept at the Brussels press conference cannot create credibility. She told a packed auditorium how the EU will convince its citizens to use low-energy lamps, and how no one will have to unscrew and throw away their existing light bulbs. Once again, the EU is fashioning one of its superb guidelines. Over time there will be low-energy lamps in every household, and no one will even have noticed. The world is being saved, and no one notices. Now that is something new.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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