Summit Hopping Germany Prepares to Take Helm of EU and G8

2007 will be a big year for Germany: As president of the European Union, Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to reenergize a flagging European project. And as chair of the G8, she will have to resolve some of the most burning issues facing the world’s industrialized nations. Is the chancellor up to the job?

EU partners Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: "Rock-hard interests"

EU partners Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: "Rock-hard interests"

Rainald Steck is nothing if not well traveled: He has served as Germany’s ambassador in Togo, Senegal and most recently in Afghanistan. Nowadays, however, as a result of his recent stint as the Foreign Ministry's head of protocol, the 61-year-old has been forced to stay closer to home. His last trip was to the northern German town of Heiligendamm, home to the five-star Kempinski Grand Hotel, one of Germany's most luxurious.

For a few days at the beginning of June, around 15 heads of state and government from all over the world will be visiting the Baltic Coast resort. And a swarm of 2,000 delegates and 4,000 journalists, in itself a logistical feat, will be fighting to get to the G8 summit. After inspecting the hotel, Steck assured journalists that the "level of comfort" for foreign guests staying there would be extremely high. "People will be able to get down to business," he said.

As Berlin's go-to man for coordinating the accommodations and logistics for the largest political event post-war Germany has ever staged, it is up to him to find many places with that level of comfort. On Jan. 1, Germany will assume the presidency of the G8 organization of the largest industrial powers. In addition, Berlin will also chair the European Union Council, presiding over the EU's 27 member states for six months.

The 2007 "Germany Show" will be played out in rather mundane venues like Heiligendamm, but also at historic locations, like Cecilienhof palace, where the Potsdam Conference was held in 1945, and the baroque Zeughaus, the former Prussian armory, in the center of Berlin. Many German politicians will have a chance to step into the limelight, not least among them Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who will play the starring role.

For months the country’s first female chancellor will be shaking hands, holding meetings, appearing on TV screens and showing Europe -- and the world -- the modern Germany. New outfits are even being tailored for her. "Her appearance," says one close advisor, "is the hardest part of all this." In this regard, the source said, the fact that Merkel is a woman only further complicates the situation. After all, "if she appears twice in the same red jacket," she will come under a barrage of criticism. Indeed, as a woman she will be required to "change her outfits a lot more often than the men."

A European visionary

Nevertheless, Merkel already commands the respect of her male colleagues. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, has referred to her as "the visionary of Europe." The new United Nations general secretary, Ban Ki Moon, hopes that Merkel’s "double role" will be a great source of help for both of them. And the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, a close ally of the German chancellor among Europe’s conservatives, talks about his "faith in Germany's ability to lead Europe."

For her part, the chancellor has a sober attitude towards all this excitement. “The more you are praised, the more you are later criticized,” she is fond of warning in internal discussions. She knows exactly how demanding the schedule over the next few months will be: Merkel will be discussing the lack of control in capital markets, climate protection and the plight of Africa, with G8 partners including Japan, Russia and the United States. And as chair of the EU Council, she will begin renegotiations of the partnership agreement with Russia and push for energy market reforms -- an issue which, according to Merkel, deals with “rock-hard interests.”

Even the day-to-day business of being Europe’s top manager will be a challenge for the German leader. “We are faced with expectations of such magnitude that it will be almost impossible to live up to them,” groans Reinhard Silberberg, state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry. When Germany last took over the presidency of the EU and the G8 simultaneously in 1999, the situation was comparatively straightforward: the EU was much smaller, with just 15 member states; the world before Sept. 11 was more peaceful; and few expected very much of Germany. The German government, at that time located in Bonn, was just starting to make its first tentative steps onto the world stage. “We were a larger version of The Netherlands,” one cabinet member says, reflecting on the past.

A world full of conflict

Diplomats circling the globe today come across a frightening number of conflict zones that Berlin must now deal with: from the Balkans, Afghanistan and Russia, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, even as far afield as Sudan and Congo. Two hotspots of particular worry are the Middle East and the Serbian province of Kosovo. The chancellor’s advisor Christoph Heusgen has also identified events in Israel as "a focal point for European foreign policy." Heusgen says that, at the very latest, this focus became intensified by the "increased physical engagement on the ground" that has come with the deployment of international peacekeeping troops to southern Lebanon, where German Navy ships patrol the coast to prevent weapons deliveries to Hezbollah.

The Israeli security wall: a frightening number of conflict zones in the world

The Israeli security wall: a frightening number of conflict zones in the world

In an internal analysis the German Foreign Ministry has identified five “risks” for the coming six months, including new elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and the threat of new terrorist and rocket attacks on Israel.

Add to that what seasoned diplomats call the "biggest problem" the German presidency will face: the challenge posed by the Balkans. After the Serbian parliamentary elections at the end of January, UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari plans to present his recommendations on what to do about the status of the war-torn province of Kosovo. The UN would make the decision, and the EU would then be given the task of implementing the plan. "It is unlikely to be a solution which satisfies both sides," says German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It is feared that bitter disputes, and even violence, will break out.


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