By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 06/02/07):
Tony Blair may hang on as Britain’s prime minister for a few more months but as an international leader he is already history. When Russia’s Vladimir Putin talks European energy security or Kosovo these days, he talks to Germany, leader of the EU and G8. When George Bush looks for a European partner, he increasingly looks to Chancellor Angela Merkel. These are the dog days of the Blair era. Almost unnoticed, Mr Blair has become an ex-poodle.
Ms Merkel inadvertently pressed home the point today during a Middle East peacemaking tour of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf that left the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, trailing in her wake. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tops Mr Blair’s legacy list of things to do. But Ms Merkel has more to show so far for her more pragmatic, candid approach.
She personally persuaded Mr Bush to accept the linkage between Iraq and a wider Middle East settlement — a feat that long eluded Mr Blair. One practical result was American agreement to revive the so-called Quartet negotiating forum; it met in Washington on Friday. Today was spent rallying the Arab states behind the peace process.
And avoiding the Blair mistake of being perceived as Washington’s gofer, Ms Merkel appears determined to keep lines of communication open to Damascus and Tehran. “We are still trying on Syria. It would be folly to leave them to the Iranians,” a Berlin diplomat said. And a high-level meeting with Ali Larijani, Iran’s national security council chief, is possible at this weekend’s Munich security conference.
Officials characterise Ms Merkel’s Middle East initiatives as part of a wider effort to increase EU power and influence in the world. This approach, mirroring her commitment to an EU constitution, extends to strong German backing for the UN plan to hand over responsibility for Kosovo to Brussels, a continuing EU commitment in Afghanistan (where Germany has 2,700 troops and may soon send combat aircraft), and a more effective common security and defence policy.
All the same, Ms Merkel’s efforts face familiar challenges from east and west. Both Russia and the US want European alliances and markets yet neither relishes an over-powerful EU. As Berlin rises anew, old tensions are apparent.
According to Jörg Himmelreich of the German Marshall Fund, Germany and Europe have still not come to terms with the political implications of Russia’s reviving economic power. And in other areas Russia still represented a potential threat. “Germany’s leadership role in the EU is becoming more and more important because of the failings of other states,” Dr Himmelreich said. “It’s not just a cyclical phenomenon. But we need joint policies towards Russia, on future EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies. We cannot do it alone.”
For Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations, the main challenge lies elsewhere. “US-German relations are back to normal on the surface after the Schröder years. But on substance, I am not so sure,” he said. “We do not share the same interests, strategies and perceptions. Iraq is one example. Climate change is another.
“The common glue of the cold war has gone. The fight against terrorism has not replaced it. As for Iran, of course we are worried. Nobody wants a nuclear Iran. But our American friends have made major mistakes … We oppose military action. During the cold war, we talked to the communists. Now we must talk to the Iranians.”
All Ms Merkel’s efforts to make Europe an equal partner with the US could be destroyed in a moment by a US military attack on Iran, Prof Sandschneider said. EU unity would also shatter. “It would be the end of Nato. It would be the end of the US-European consensus on how to deal with security threats. It would be disastrous.”