Foreign policy casts shadow over German election next year

June 5th, 2008 - 8:57 am ICT by IANS  

Berlin, June 5 (DPA) Differences in approach between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are likely to overshadow at least some aspects of German foreign policy over the 15 months leading up to the next elections. “There is still a large consensus on what is in Germany’s best interest,” political analyst Henning Riecke says, amid indications that Steinmeier could emerge as the Social Democrat (SPD) challenger to the Christian Democrat (CDU) chancellor in September next year.

Most foreign policy issues will be untouched, but key areas, including policy towards China and towards Russia, particularly with regard to US plans for a missile defence shield in Central Europe, could feel the impact of electoral positioning.

“Here you will see debates and tension before a coherent position emerges,” Riecke, who analyses policy for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), predicts.

Steinmeier was reported to have been “enraged” to hear while on a trip to Russia last month that Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a fellow SPD member, had met the Dalai Lama without informing him in advance of her plans.

The foreign ministry strove for months following Merkel’s own meeting with the Tibetan leader in September last year to patch up a breach in relations with China, finally putting the dispute to rest only in January.

Steinmeier carefully avoided the Dalai Lama this time, pleading other engagements, and for this he drew fire for his “cynicism” from CDU politicians. Merkel was out of the country attending a European Union-Latin American summit.

But German business was supportive. “We saw the strong Chinese reaction after the Dalai Lama was received in the chancellery,” Confederation of German Industry Vice-President Juergen Heraeus said, noting that 100,000 German jobs depended on exports to China.

“Cynical is the wrong term here,” Riecke says. “Steinmeier does not put German economic interests above human rights and democracy.”

The analyst draws a direct line from the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt, the SPD chancellor of the early 1970s who opened up relations with communist East Germany and the Soviet Union, to Steinmeier’s approach to China and Russia today.

The SPD continues to believe that cooperation and dialogue - “change through rapprochement” is the slogan - achieve more in the long term than confrontation.

“This is the result of long experience in the Foreign Ministry of people who work with Russia and China. These are not countries that can be elbowed aside,” Riecke says.

Brandt’s Ostpolitik is seen in Germany as contributing to a reduction in tension at a key phase in the Cold War, and Germans particularly recall the gradual, but significant, easing of restrictions on contacts across the Berlin Wall.

But Merkel’s approach is different, conditioned at least in part by her upbringing in communist East Germany.

“Merkel has a value-based foreign policy system. And she needs to play to the many supporters of the Dalai Lama in her own party,” Riecke says.

“The chancellor is willing to accept confrontation with Russia and China even at the price of endangering dialogue and economic relations.”

These differences in political style could become significant in the heat of an election campaign.

The chancellor and her conservative Christian bloc, comprising the CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister-party, are riding high in the polls.

Steinmeier - if he is the SPD candidate - will have to pull out all the stops. And the intricacies of foreign policy would be a natural arena for the SPD politician to highlight his undoubted experience.

Spring could be the time that the unwieldy “grand coalition” - this is only the second time since World War II that Germany has been governed by the two main political blocs this way - begins to show signs of real strain.

A decision on whether to station the US missile defence system - 10 missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic - looms at around this time.

While foreign policy experts in the CDU/CSU see the US programme as a relatively cheap and effective way to bolster Europe’s - and particularly Germany’s - defence, the SPD wants to make sure that Russia does not feel threatened.

“There could be conflict over this, with the SPD seeking to capitalize on its image of the peace party,” Riecke says.

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