And today, the German chancellor is again in the international spotlight as she delivered the keynote address to open the World Economic Forum, the mega-conference in the Swiss ski resort of Davos that has become the premier annual forum for elites to share ideas and grab headlines.
Standing Up To Moscow
Merkel once again focused on Russia's controversial role in European energy security.
"The last few weeks, in particular, have shown that energy supply is an issue of security and political framework. I discussed this from a European point of view [on January 21] with the Russian president, and we agreed that, when there are problems, communication must be improved," she said.
"And let me add that it can be improved. And that is why we, as the European Union, will try to lay down economic rules and convince Russian partners to do so, too."
During an oil price dispute earlier this month between Moscow and Minsk, Russian supplies to Europe were temporarily cut off and Merkel was critical of Russia. But her comments in Davos jived with remarks she made last week when she met with Putin in Sochi.
They emphasize compromise with Moscow over confrontation, and are as good an indication as any of Germany's approach to how the European Union should handle its tricky relationship with the energy giant to its east.
It's just one issue on which Merkel, and Germany, are now in a unique position to exert influence in the months to come.
January 1, Germany assumed the rotating presidency of both the European
Union and the Group of Eight (G8) top industrial democracies -- an
unusual concentration of power in the hands of Europe's biggest economy.
the top of Merkel's to-do list is jump-starting the ratification
process for the EU constitution, which was derailed in 2005 after both
France and the Netherlands rejected it in referendums.
Romania and Bulgaria's recent membership, Merkel said last week that a
27-member EU must have clear guidelines in order to function.
know that we now need to listen carefully to what people don't like
about the [EU] constitution and what seems to be an insurmountable
barrier," she said. "That obviously needs to be discussed again. But, I
have to say over and over again, we cannot function as a European Union
with the 27 member states."
On January 19, in an interview with
East European television stations, Merkel also pointed out that without
a constitution, the EU cannot bring in a new member, such as Croatia,
when it fulfils its membership obligations. Nor, she said, can the EU
develop a common policy aimed at achieving more energy independence.
Merkel's Davos audience contained an impressive guest list, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Much of her address focused on economic issues and globalization, which she characterized as a force for prosperity. She also clearly indicated that Germany, as G8 president, will work to revive the collapsed Doha round of world trade talks.
"The World Bank has discovered that the countries that are actively involved in globalization have considerably increased growth. In the protectionist countries, growth has slowed. This goes for both industrialized and developing countries," Merkel said.
"That's why it's in everyone's interest for the Doha round [of World Trade Organization talks] to be a success. And I hope that during the next few days, there will be important talks. The chances of success are there, without a doubt. However, the positions of Europe, the United States, and the emerging and developing countries must still get closer."
Germany is set to hold a G8 summit June 6-8 in the northern Baltic town of Heiligendamm.
The 52-year-old Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, told her audience of business and political leaders that growing global prosperity depends on the continued integration of the world's emerging market economies with the leading industrial powerhouses in Europe, North America, and Asia.
"The tasks are, indeed, huge and that is why it is clear that only a common effort by the G8 can help integrate the developing countries into the common global framework," she said. "Anything else will not work. And that's why, for the G8 summit in Germany, we want to focus on a new dialogue with the big emerging countries, with Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa.
Merkel also called for a huge cut in bureaucracy in Europe and Germany, and an increase in the retirement age. But while the center-right leader backs reforms, most analysts expect Merkel to compromise -- not least because she presides over a grand coalition government that includes the left-of-center Social Democrats.
Merkel, by any measure, has a few ideas, as she revealed in her address to the European Parliament last week. "The freedom to speak one's mind freely, even when it does not please others. The freedom to believe, or not to believe. The freedom of entrepreneurship, the freedom of artists to create their own work on their own terms. Europe needs such freedom like [it needs] air to breathe," she said.
Her speech was hailed by many observers as an ambitious bid to reconcile Europe's social diversity today with its traditional social values.
Because it is now so diverse, Merkel said, Europe must fully embrace tolerance. However, she said tolerance must not amount to weakness of conviction. As an example, she has suggested that Christianity somehow be enshrined in a future EU constitution.
Reaching Across The Atlantic
Merkel has also sought to smooth over the rough edges of the U.S.-German relationship, which was frayed by Schroeder's opposition to the Iraq war and its use as a campaign tool. By most accounts, she has succeeded in doing so.
In Washington earlier this month, she pointed out recent European support at the United Nations Security Council for American-backed sanctions against Iran as an example of successful trans-Atlantic diplomacy.
At the same time, however, she said such cooperation should now be applied toward solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- yet another issue that Merkel has put front and center.
It's one way of pressuring the United States to be more active on that issue. But it's also an example of Merkel's own brand of European diplomacy, which appears more and more to be filling a gap left by the soon-to-be-departed leaders of Britain and France, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Jacques Chirac.
As Merkel basks in the spotlight between the United States and Russia, the woman dubbed the world's most powerful female by "Forbes" magazine clearly seeks compromise -- not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieving her own goals.
A worker inspects a gas facility outside of Kyiv (epa file photo)
MURKY CONNECTIONS. A year after the so-called gas war between Moscow and Kyiv, energy transhipments from Russia to Europe via Ukraine remain a concern. On December 1, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a briefing featuring Tom Mayne, an energy researcher for the London-based Global Witness. Mayne discussed the lack of transparency in the energy sectors of Ukraine, Russia, and gas supplier Turkmenistan.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
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