December 10, 2008 / 2:06 PM / 9 years ago

ANALYSIS-Merkel shifts focus to home front as Europe stews

By Noah Barkin

BERLIN, Dec 10 (Reuters) - The Angela Merkel who will show up in Brussels this week for a crucial EU summit on the economic crisis is a very different leader from the one who rallied the bloc behind a new reform treaty and bold climate goal last year.

With a German election looming in September, the chancellor, dubbed "Miss World" for the diplomatic triumphs of her first years in power, has reshuffled her priorities and emerged as Europe's "Madame No".

Driving Europe forward, and more importantly using German money and her own political capital to do so, has become secondary to the promotion of Berlin's interests -- a shift reinforced by the threatening economic situation in Germany.

This transformation has exposed Merkel to stinging criticism from some of her European partners, damaged her image abroad and weakened her influence in the 27-nation EU, pushing France and Britain closer together to Germany's detriment.

But Merkel appears determined to absorb the blows and, according to senior officials familiar with her thinking, is unlikely to reverse course before German voters go to the polls in a little over nine months.

"Merkel is a dedicated European but she is also pragmatic," said Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University and biographer of Merkel. "She is very focused at the moment on how best to win the next election."

Dubbed the "Klimakanzlerin", or climate chancellor, in 2007 when she pushed through deals to combat global warming within the EU and G8, Merkel will show her new face in Brussels.

She has privately vowed to resist any measures in a European climate package to be finalised there that would hurt the German car sector or endanger jobs.

She heads to the summit as a virtual pariah on economic policy as well, determined to ignore calls for Germany to top up a stimulus package that France, Britain and the European Commission see as too modest.

Her government has deep doubts about whether a bigger fiscal boost would cure the economy's ills and, after a three-year drive to bring the German budget into balance, is dead set against running up new deficits just to help countries like France, which have refused to get their own finances into shape.


Ulrike Geurot of the European Council on Foreign Relations sees Merkel's intense focus on German interests as a return to form for Berlin, which has been moving away from its traditional role as Europe's paymaster for much of the past decade.

"Merkel's performance in her first years is best seen as an exception to the trend," Guerot said. "The years when Germany put money on the table just for the sake of Europe are over. They haven't been good Europeans since end of the 1990s."

Still, Merkel's shift does carry risks for her and Germany.

While she remains popular at home and looks on track to win re-election, in part because her main rivals the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) are so weak, her reputation beyond Germany's borders has taken a serious blow.

Until recently she was seen as Europe's strongest leader -- a fresh face from the former communist German east who could forge consensus within the EU where others couldn't and who was Washington's power-broker on the continent.

Now some in Europe are openly wondering whether Merkel shone so brightly in the past because she was surrounded by lame duck leaders like France's Jacques Chirac and Britain's Tony Blair.

In the heat of the financial crisis, she has looked cautious and obstructive compared to their successors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, who met in London to prepare the EU summit on Monday in what many observers saw as a snub to Merkel.

"She is not the same novelty that she was in 2006 and 2007," said Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.

In the coming months, she faces a delicate balancing act to ensure her tarnished image in Europe and focus on domestic politics does not lead to diminished influence in Washington.

Sarkozy appears keen to become Barack Obama's point person in Europe and German officials are aware the French leader will have an easier time meeting demands from the new U.S. president in places like Afghanistan than Merkel will in an election year.


Unlike fellow European leaders like Sarkozy and Brown, Merkel sits atop an unwieldy "grand coalition", which has limited her room for maneouvre in the financial crisis and will continue to plague her until the September vote.

Her SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, for example, is a staunch opponent of more fiscal stimulus and Merkel would spark a crisis in her government if she fought him on the issue.

Despite the pressure from foreign capitals for Germany to do more to combat the crisis, Merkel's priority will be holding her government together, Langguth of Bonn University said.

She knows that German voters have a history of re-electing their leaders in times of upheaval. They backed Helmut Schmidt in 1978 after left-wing guerrilla killings shook the country, Helmut Kohl after reunification in 1990, and gave Gerhard Schroeder a new term a year after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"As long as German voters have the impression the coalition is being managed smoothly Merkel, faces limited risk to her re-election hopes," Langguth said. (Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by Ralph Boulton)

0 : 0
  • narrow-browser-and-phone
  • medium-browser-and-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser
  • wide-browser-and-larger
  • medium-browser-and-landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser-and-larger
  • above-phone
  • portrait-tablet-and-above
  • above-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet-and-above
  • landscape-tablet-and-medium-wide-browser
  • portrait-tablet-and-below
  • landscape-tablet-and-below