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The incredible Ms. Merkel:
How will Germany's first femail chancellor fare as Bush's new mystery date?

By Theda Braddock

A new era is beginning in Europe right now, and with Angela Merkel as chancellor, all eyes are turned towards Germany. After the European constitution was voted down last year and following the recent accumulation of problems in many individual states, Europeans are realizing adjustments are needed. Ms. Merkel is the first new state leader to have to face these latest problems head on.

Ms. Merkel's actions will hold consequences for all of Europe while her performance will serve as a guide for surrounding countries seeking similar action. Moreover, in a world more globalized than ever, Merkel will have to uphold some delicate and essential relationships, maintaining a history with France and redeveloping a future with the US.

A key part of Merkel’s agenda will be her ability to deal with her neighbors. With so much attention focused on the future of the European Union she will have to be careful with her relationships, most notably with France. The Franco-German link is historically noteworthy as it was these two countries that pushed for European solidarity after the Second World War. The relationship has been important ever since and while Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, enjoyed a rather amiable relationship with French president Jacques Chirac, whether this rapport will continue as before remains to be seen.

Yet, it is not insignificant that Ms. Merkel’s first stop on her tour following her accession was in Paris where she recognized that “a good German-French relationship, a friendly, a deep relationship, is not only important for our two countries but also necessary and desirable for Europe.” ‘’The relationship must be maintained, must continue to be developed and always be filled with life,’’ she promised.

Chirac agreed, “Europe, if it is to work properly, must have a strong Franco-German axis. Experience proves it: If we don’t get along, then the system is blocked.”

And right now these countries have more in common than just hopes for the future of Europe. Both states’ economies are struggling, unemployment is unusually high and politicians and citizens alike are demanding reform.

France has already begun to take action. Earlier this year Prime Minister Dominique Villepin initiated a first set of reforms designed to make hiring and firing easier, hoping to increase employment. Other initiatives on the way will, if passed, make France’s economy more open. The French have so far largely resisted the path to globalization but with the economy so stressed it is evident that a little change could go a long way.

The Germans, for their part, have introduced a mild set of reforms, dubbed Agenda 2010, set into action by former Chancellor Schröder. Merkel has already promised to continue modifications and will begin by increasing the VAT tax and changing the employment laws.

But it is what is to come that will be most interesting. Dominique Villepin and France’s Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy are in a race for the 2007 election and both are promising changes. Their actions following the recent riots exposed their desire and willingness to campaign hard. Merkel has already openly indicated her preference for Sarkozy who, at least until recently, was expected to win hands down. The two share similar styles and have similar plans for their respective countries as well as for Europe. Sarkozy, like Merkel, is hesitant to allow Turkey to join the EU and both would like to continue the Franco-German relationship but not at the expense of a stronger and more unified Europe.

In more recent weeks Merkel has met with both political showoffs, proving her promise of a desire of continuing relations. The other side of the coin is of course with the United States. These days it’s no easy task for foreign leaders to deal with President Bush (as Merkel’s predecessor illustrated) but so long as America continues its super power status some form of association is fundamental.
Ms. Merkel is well aware of this and has stated numerous times she will not promote a Europe vs. US mentality. In preferring to work alongside America she is perhaps more open than some of her European colleagues (though relations are starting to warm up).

Last month Merkel made her first visit to Washington meeting with Bush to discuss a number of pressing topics, the first being the growing concern with Iran’s nuclear threat. Both leaders agreed the threat was serious and warranted immediate attention. The EU and the US have both been pushing for action and would like UN intervention.

However all is not as rosy as it seems. Bush continued his hard line defence of the CIA’s secret prisons in Europe and of the questionable practices at the Guantanamo camp. Merkel will have to work hard to look past these discretions but for now as long as the two countries work together on the Iran issue it seems a new future could be in the midst.

This new future could include a trio of like-minded leaders in the next few years. Both France and the United States are headed towards eagerly anticipated elections, France with the afore-mentioned Villepin/Sarkozy possibility and the US with a strong likelihood of having its first female president. For now, attitudes are warming but in several years the relationships could be heating up to a very opportunistic revival.


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