Sunday, January 08, 2006

Angela Merkel - still in her first 100 days

"An institution like Guantanamo can and should not exist in the longer term," Angela Merkel said in an interview with Der Spiegel. "Different ways and means must be found for dealing with these prisoners." Asked about the comments at a news conference, she said: "That's my opinion and my view and I'll say it elsewhere just as I have expressed it here."

However, she made it clear that she would not demand the immediate closure of the detention centre when she meets President Bush next Friday. "My talks with leaders of other countries don't consist of my expressing demands but of exchanging views," she said.

Merkel has vowed to repair ties with the USA, with relations badly strained over the U.S.-led Iraq invasion, which Gerhard Schroeder strongly opposed. It will be interesting to see what reaction she gets from the Bush administration, who might also be wishing that they had developed a different solution.

Merkel’s comments also seem to acknowledge that suspected terrorists, potential suicide bombers and irregular combatants are not readily amenable to the application of normal civil law or the terms of the Geneva Convention.

Chancellor Merkel made a very positive impression at the December EU budget negotiations and was widely acknowledged as having played a pivotal though low-key role in bringing these to a successful conclusion.

She’s clearly made an impressive beginning on the international stage, but her biggest challenge will be the domestic scene where the economy is in urgent need of major and painful reform, particularly in the funding of the German welfare system. The German economy, for decades the powerhouse of Europe, has been struggling to achieve growth in the past decade, further hampered by the huge costs of reunification.

If Germany bites the bullet, it may make it politically easier, though still hugely challenging, for Jacques Chirac’s successor to follow suit in France.

To date, Merkel looks like a serious, heavy weight politician whose balanced public pronouncements on Guantanamo and discreet but effective diplomacy in Brussels augur well for the future. Who knows, her approach and demeanour might actually rub-off on some of the bigger egos in the EU and we might get less posturing and megaphone diplomacy and more constructive development of EU structures and policies. Such a change in climate might even help voters accept a future version of the EU constitution.

There are many fascinating political situations, challenges and players in some of our major European partners. I wish the Irish & UK media would focus more resources on quality reporting and analysis of these areas.

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