Never underestimate a woman. Angela Merkel will be the politician to watch next year. Her two predecessors as German chancellor, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, derisively called her “das Mädchen” (the girl). Through sheer ambition, however, this workaholic has made her way to the top in Germany. She is now on her way to the top in Europe. At last week’s European Union summit in Brussels, Ms Merkel brokered the budget deal between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jack Chirac. The deal gave nothing to Blair and everything to Chirac. Merkel, however, succeeded in giving Blair the impression that he had saved his face, while at the same time she gave Chirac the impression that he – and not “the girl” – had persuaded Blair to the budget deal. “Il faut le faire,” as they say in Jack’s language.
On top of it all, Merkel managed to salvage 400 million euros from the EU budget for Germany. She at once gave 100 million euros to Poland, thereby accomplishing a second remarkable feat. During the past six months Blair had antagonised Poland. He drove Britain’s geopolitical ally into the arms of France by giving the impression that London cared only about its own money and did not give a damn about Eastern Europe. Merkel gave Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz a present of 100 million euros, as if she wanted to indicate that Warsaw’s true friend is not London or Paris, but Berlin.
This is even more remarkable considering that German-Polish relations are currently under strain, following Gerhard Schröder’s private pension scheme which involves a Russian-German gas deal and the construction of a Baltic Sea pipeline that has angered the Poles and other East Europeans. Merkel has also promised Marcinkiewicz that “she will not go over Poland’s head in dealing with Moscow.”
Merkel’s Germany, unlike Schröder’s, wants “to have good relations with both Russia and Poland” and, for that matter, with France and Britain. This may be an indication that Merkel is sympathetic to the proposal made last July by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister and likely candidate for the French presidency, to establish an EU run by an “engine” consisting of the six biggest members: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland.
While Blair and Chirac are politicians of the past decade, who will no longer be there in 2007, Merkel is probably the first representative of the new generation that might be leading Europe by the end of the decade and that might come to include Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron.
With the diplomatic skill that Ms Merkel has shown last week in Brussels, after not even a full month in office, anyone would want to have such a woman in their own camp. Unfortunately, Merkel is one of the many undemocratic European politicians who do not care much about electorates. She belongs to the group of politicians who want to revive the European Constitution. In theory the Constitution should have been dead after the rejection in the French and Dutch referendums last Spring. EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso even said as much, adding that he did not have “any magic formulae that would bring it back to life.” According to the EU rules all 25 member states have to accept the Constitution in order for it to take effect.
Though many Europhile politicians have expressed the desire to bring the constitutional zombie back to life, simply disregarding the popular verdicts in France and the Netherlands, it has so far been unclear how this could be done. Now, however, there is Merkel, who has proved to be a formidable force, intelligent and shrewd. The coalition agreement of her government states that Germany wil use its EU presidency in the first six months of 2007 to revive the ratification of the Constitution. “We stand for the European constitutional treaty,” the German government agreement reads.
The Council of Ministers of the European Union has a rotating presidency: every six months another of the 25 member states has the chair. On January 1st Britain will be succeeded by Austria, which will be succeeded by Finland on July 1st, and the latter by Germany on January 1st 2007. The people of Austria and Finland, the two countries who hold the EU presidency in 2006, belong to the most eurosceptic of all. Of the 25 member states the peoples of Austria and Britain like the European Union the least, with just 32% of Austrians and 33% of Brits saying EU membership is a good thing for their country, followed by Latvia (36%), Finland (38%) and Sweden and Hungary (both 39%). Nevertheless, the governments of Austria and Finland do not care about what their citizens think. This week they announced in Brussels that they will prepare the ground for a revival of the Constitution. This, too, is probably the result of Merkel’s diplomacy.
Last Monday, Vienna and Helsinki presented a common action programme. This was the first time in the EU’s history that two successive EU presidents presented a common programme. During a press conference with Antti Peltomäki, the Finnish Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian Foreign Minister, hailed the constitution as holding the answers to key questions about Europe. She did not conceal her eagerness to relaunch the debate. “We need to look at what we want, how we want to live in Europe, in our re-unified Europe, which is coming closer together. An answer will best come, perhaps, if we look at the Constitutional Treaty, because I think it’s a fascinating document, that sets out our objectives as a community of values. The time is ripening now. This is the feeling I get, in my many conversations with colleagues around the table.”
One of these colleagues is, of course, Merkel, who is said to have been doing her homework and already has some clear ideas about how to proceed. Her spokesman, Thomas Steg, said this week that Germany plans to “revive Europe” by adding a “social protocol” to the EU Constitution, to “make it more acceptable to French and Dutch public opinion.” Heads of State and Government would be required to sign a declaration on “the social dimension of Europe” which would oblige member states to take more account of the “social consequences” of Internal Market legislation. This would be a filter to EU legislation, such as the Bolkestein Directive, that is perceived to be “anti-social” because it opens up the protectionist West European labour markets to workers from Central and Eastern Europe (the so-called “Polish plumbers”).
It is generally assumed that the Constitution was rejected in France and Germany because of an unnatural alliance of opponents from the “far-left” as well as from the “far-right.” The Right is assumed to have disliked the idea of a federal pan-European superstate, while the Left is said to have disliked the idea of economic liberalisation which diminishes the “social protection” provided by the national welfare systems. The German Chancellor is currently testing her ideas about this “social Europe” by circulating “preliminary concepts” within the European People’s Party (EPP), the Christian-Democrat group in the European Parliament. Merkel clearly believes that adding a social chapter to the Constitution will be sufficient to get it approved by the Left when, presumably in the second half of 2007, the French and the Dutch electorates will be ‘given a second chance’ to approve the EU Constitution. The EPP leaders are not prepared to change the text of the EU Constitution itself, says Steg, because there is “no time” to rewrite the text.