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18 December 2006

Europe’s saviour

For decades, Germany has trodden carefully on the world stage. Now, thanks to a quirk of timing, it

By Roger Boyes

There are many inaccurate stereotypes of Germany and Germans, but the worst is surely that the country has a longing, a natural predisposition, for order. “Ordnung muss sein!” a petty bureaucrat will tell you as she firmly corrects some irregularity or untidiness. If someone accidentally barges you in the street he will say not sorry, but rather: “Alles in Ordnung?” Yet Germany is actually resistant to order and seems for much of the time to be on the very cusp of chaos. Its smooth-shaven, baby-powdered, American-English-speaking managers, diplomats and political ringmasters are not really in control; they are skating very quickly over very thin ice.

The last German presidency of the European Union springs to mind. It was the first half of 1999 and the first big diplomatic challenge for Gerhard Schröder. His immediate predecessor, Helmut Kohl, preferred to stage Berlin summits at the InterContinental hotel on the Budapester Strasse. The rather poetic reason was that he could waddle out of the back of the hotel, unobserved, and within five minutes be through the side entrance of Berlin Zoo. There, he would sit for 20 minutes watching the red-bottomed inhabitants of the monkey cage while pondering (one would like to think) the vag aries of European monetary union. As a result, summits were shoehorned into a profoundly impractical space. The press was allocated a clapped-out building nearby.

At a crucial moment that year, the fuses blew, 2,000 computers died and it took three hours to restore electricity. As I recall, we were all given little Berlin teddy bears the next day as compensation for missing our deadlines. Schröder was not as annoyed as he should have been. He was preparing his country for military involvement in a Balkan war that could have ripped apart his coalition. As usual, he barely noticed when the French diddled him on the Common Agricultural Policy. And the feud with Oskar Lafon taine, his finance minister, was coming to a head. There were sighs of relief across Europe when the baton passed from Germany.

This time, they say, it will be different. Germany is in charge again, following the not altogether happy British model of joint EU presidency and chairmanship of the G8. It looks as if it could be Germany’s moment. Angela Merkel started her chancellorship in November 2005 with a series of clever, understated diplomatic victories. She moved from capital to capital putting out fires like Red Adair. Her stewardship of the 2006 World Cup demonstrated her ease as a hostess, her apparent talent for unobtrusive Ordnung. After Kohl’s bombast and blunderbuss sensitivity, after Schröder’s vanity and failure to master detail, Merkel can only be an improvement: she is a natural administrator.

Leadership vacuum

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How could she not shine? Europe is in a leadership vacuum. Ségo versus Sarko in France, an uneasy handover in Britain, Prodi wobbly, post-election Holland and Austria without governments, Sweden moulting ministers, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic all in varying degrees of mess. One could add: a limping White House, and a Kremlin preparing for succession.

If ever there was a time for Germany to assert its new-found confidence, this would be it. The economy is recovering strongly. Political opposition is virtually irrelevant, because a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists can cook up more or less what it wants.

And yet Germany’s 2007 agenda looks ambitious for an incrementalist such as Merkel. Reviving the European constitution; securing Europe’s energy supplies; a more dynamic European policy on the Middle East; an accord with Russia signed and sealed before Vladimir Putin heads off to a retirement job at Gazprom; a firmer line on Turkey; breaking the regulatory grip of Brussels on industry; controlling hedge funds: these are just some of the aims percolating in Berlin. But remember how Tony Blair declared his intention to save Africa, and failed? Angela Merkel is out to save Europe. And failure, sad to say, is almost certain.

There are three reasons why Chancellor Mer kel is likely to fall flat on her face.

First, a successful EU presidency depends on a capacity to forge strong Continental coalitions. Plainly, the old Franco-German axis is no longer up to it. The other day, in the lush Saarland, Merkel and Jacques Chirac met with Lech Kac zynski. The Polish president is not, it is fair to say, the most polished of performers. Yet he ran rings around them, explaining in a few pithy phrases why the constitution could not be revived (the people did not want it), why Turkey should join the European Union (we need it) and why a deal could not be struck with Russia (the EU had to show solidarity with its borderlands – otherwise Moscow would isolate and neutralise each of the EU’s new eastern members, one by one).

Chancellor Merkel cannot build the necessary majorities because the centre ground is crumbling. The fastest-growing forces in Holland are the far right and the far left. In Austria, the far right is doing just fine without Jörg Haider. A great deal of populist energy is accumulating around what could be called a trans national anti-immigration movement. Merkel, seemingly so much of the centre, is not immune from it: her present ambiguity about Turkey is likely to become outright opposition by 2008 as she gears up for a general election.

Second, a strong EU presidency needs to make an ally out of the European Commission. She helped to put José Manuel Barroso in place but he is none the stronger for it. And Barroso’s deputy, Merkel’s great hope for a deregulatory campaign, is Günter Verheugen. Who has just been caught on a Lithuanian beach wearing only a baseball cap, with his equally naked chef du cabinet.

Finally, an effective EU president has to be a risk-taker, with a capacity for big creative gestures. The EU has to reposition itself in relation to Russia, has to declare Europe’s moral and geographical boundaries. Merkel, for all her virtues, does not have the necessary élan.

Perhaps Germany will surprise us. Merkel has luck, and that counts for a great deal. But my bet is that events will overwhelm her. Germany’s diplomats and spin-doctors, so much more competent than in 1999, should be able to head off an embarrassing flop, yet the best they can hope for is to repress Germany’s inclination to panic, to stave off the sense of chaos that bubbles so close to the surface. Europe, in search of a national leader, will still be searching for one when nice Mrs Merkel has had her year in the spotlight.

Roger Boyes writes for the Times

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