T WEEKEND - THE FRONT LINE: New Europe, New Divide

Everyone is talking about the New Europe these days, so I thought I might seek her out. Who is this creature who dares to diss Schröder, Fischer, and Chirac?

In the end, I located her - or one of her kind - in an improbably Old European setting: a private breakfast room in downtown Berlin's Hotel Palace, the sort of sterile five-star place where the ghosts of the ElysÈe Treaty might commune. She appeared in the person of Angela Merkel, potential chancellor of Germany.

Merkel may be chairwoman of one of the stuffiest of Europe's political parties, the go-along, get-along Christian Democratic Union. But this season she has challenged the German establishment by throwing the support of her party behind the smaller nations that penned the "New Europe" letter to President Bush. On a Washington visit later this month, Merkel plans to take a position decisively to the right of Germany's other big conservative leader, the preachy Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union.

The Merkel rallying cry - "dictators understand only the language of threat" - is so sharp, so inappropriate to the salon as to seem positively un-German.

When we met at the Palace, I reflected that the 48-year-old Merkel differed from most German alpha politicians in at least three ways. The first is that she is not a professional politician. She trained as a particle physicist, a job more serious and precise than any to be found in the marketing-obsessed Bundestag. The second is that she is an Easterner and lived plenty of adult years under the communists, even years when it still seemed at least possible that the Soviets would send their tanks rolling westward. In other words, her

formative experience was the cold war. And she and her constituents in northern Stralsund and Ruegen have had personal experience with a regime that is worse than anything the bad old US could possibly represent.

The third is that she is a woman, still not the norm for the top echelon of German politics. (In Germany, speechmakers from all parties but the Greens expand their chests like gorillas behind their podiums in order to maximise the breadth of their shoulders.) And while certainly pretty, Merkel does not sport the irradiated blonde look that tends to be mandatory for bright-eyed power women over the age of 35.

All these factors mean that the German political world tends to underestimate her as a competitor, or dismiss her as "not cutting edge". A non-blonde, non-young woman without a big power base can't win for the CDU and is just a quota choice, goes the received wisdom. Therefore, Stoiber had to be the 2002 chancellor candidate. Besides, Merkel's critics argue: the cold war and its rhetoric are so yesterday. But it also means that she is accustomed to criticism, and is therefore refreshingly unflappable.

This morning, in any case, it does not seem to bother her a bit that the federal chancellor and foreign minister Joschka Fischer are hard at work negotiating the twists and turns of the German Sonderweg (special path) not far from where she sits. By her second sip of orange juice, Merkel has already detailed differences between her position on the US and Chancellor Schröder's. These turn out to be wider than - to stick to the cold war imagery - the old Fulda Gap.

"If I had been the head of the government, I would have signed that initiative," she says, referring to the letter published by leaders of eight countries airing their differences with German policy on Iraq.

"There are two lessons we have from history. The first is 'no war'. The second is 'no special path for Germany'." And that means, she sums up: "We always have to find solutions with our allies". This is the opposite approach of Schröder and Fischer's UN blocking action.

"What's more," she says, staring from beneath her fringe, "Germany must ask: 'What is in German interest'? It is not merely giving thanks to the US for history." It is also aiding the US. Germans, she says, are completely

convinced that if anything happens to them, the US will save them. "They don't realise if we don't help America, America won't help us."

Now she speeds up, and the salmon, sausages and swirls of smoked ham in front of her lie untouched. Germans, she says, have to think about the reality of their new life as a big nation. Freedom is fine. But "we have not only rights, but also duties".

There remains, however, the question of whether the "Angela as Rebel" model will break down when it comes to economics. Chancellor Schröder has left the CDU and its Christian Social Union partner an enviable opportunity when it comes to taxes. Schröder's insistence that it is time to raise rates provoked national outrage, generating a pop hit, "The Tax Song" ("Dog tax, tobacco tax - did you really believe more wasn't coming?"). It's a telling fact that the hit is also available in karaoke, so that the super-tax frustrated can belt out anti-tax solos to their heart's content.

Merkel, alas, does not seem eager to exploit her tax advantage. Rather, she posits that Germany cannot afford rate cuts because they will widen the deficit too much.

Merkel's stolid thesis reflects the extraordinary pro-tax consensus of the German political leadership: there is little difference here between Merkel, Schröder or Fischer. And without the tax card to play, Merkel is stuck arguing for labour market deregulation and programmes that would increase incentives to return to work. That's nice, but these steps are not sufficient to restore ailing Germany. Nor do they make great billboard copy.

Still, it is foreign policy that matters most this morning and here Merkel, with her unabashed embrace of the US, has established herself as a true radical and one of the minority.

This very week, Mike Moore's Stupid White Men, a parody-attack on the Bush administration, tops Der Spiegel's non-fiction bestseller list. Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine, which confirms every prejudice about US society a German might dream up, is doing pretty darn well too. Many Germans, especially eastern Germans - a great number voted for Schröder last autumn - will think she's like Tony Blair. If he is the lapdog, she is the Schnauzer of the "Amis".

The Merkel position is not even uniformly popular within her own party. This is something her rivals will try to exploit. Their goal would be to bump her up to candidate for the ceremonial presidency post, while reserving the powerful chancellor job for themselves.

Still, while Merkel may be a national exception, she is not necessarily a regional one. It was the central European nations, after all, that joined Spain in signing the Bush letter. In central Europe, pro-American sentiment is strong, and not especially party-political. Thus for example, in neighbouring Poland opinion polls show citizens supporting the US to the same numbers that Germans reject it.

Even as Merkel finishes up at the Hotel Palace, the Polish prime minister Leszek Miller (head not of the conservative but the postcommunist party) is arriving in Washington to meet President Bush and show his support. Topic A of the meeting: relocating some of the US military to Polish bases from German ones. For both Poles and the US, this prospect is delicious: no more nasty demos at Ramstein or Frankfurt. Just peace and quiet near Krakow.

The atmosphere within Germany may be changing as well. Earlier this month, voters abandoned Schröder's Social Democrats in droves in two big state elections. Polls suggested the economy was the main factor behind their shift, but Schröder's explicit peace-at-any-price line did not carry his party either.

Public opinion will probably move toward the US the moment an Iraq war is launched. Much, of course, depends on what happens in Iraq. In other words, Germany remains both isolated and in play. Its foreign policy confronts challenges not only from outside, but, as Merkel proves, from within.

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

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