Merkel seeks 'common front' on U.S. missile plans

Posted in NATO | 22-Mar-07 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

BERLIN: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, trying to counter the increasingly anti-American attitude of her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, has called on the European Union to find a common position over American plans to deploy part of an anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

Europe, Merkel said, cannot afford to become divided over the issue as it did in 2002 over U.S. plans to invade Iraq, or back in the early 1980s over deploying missiles to counter Soviet rockets.

"The only option is to present a common front," the conservative chancellor, speaking in her position as head of the EU presidency, told the newspaper Rheinische Post on Wednesday.

In fact, the two parties in Merkel's coalition appear more divided over the missile shield than other EU member states, which have been far less vocal or critical of the U.S. missile shield.

Kurt Beck, leader of the Social Democrats, said this week that the missile defense shield would lead to a new arms race and that it should be discussed within NATO, or even abandoned.

Political commentators on the left and right have been quick to seize on the divisions over the missile shield as an illustration of the discord in the coalition, which unites conservatives and Social Democrats, and the preparations of both sides for a round of state elections next year.

Berliner Zeitung, a left-leaning daily, said that Beck was pouncing on the issue of war and peace because "it is a tricky issue for the Christian Democrats." The Social Democrats are trailing Merkel's conservative bloc in the opinion polls, and have started to carve out an identity separate from the coalition in an apparent bid to win back traditional leftist voters who have defected to the new Left Party.

If an election were held this weekend, the opposition Left Party, consisting of East Germany's former Communist Party, trade unionists and leftists disappointed with the Social Democrats, would win 9 percent of the votes, according to opinion polls published Wednesday. The Social Democrats would win 30 percent and the conservative bloc 33 percent. The opposition Greens and pro- business Free Democrats would each win about 10 percent.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung criticized Beck for being naïve, or even ignorant.

"If Kurt Beck has concerns about re- armament, maybe he should express them in Tehran," the Frankfurt daily said. "That is where a missile system is being worked on, one that could reach the heart of Europe in a few years."

"The issue belongs in NATO not in order to talk it to death, as some critics of the missile defense system would secretly like to see happen, but rather to analyze the danger together and to discuss the use of this type of defense," the newspaper said. "But is there anyone on either side of the Atlantic who is really interested in doing this?"

Inside NATO, other countries have been puzzled by the level of the debate in Germany, and particularly by the Social Democrats' newfound support for the alliance.

Over the past seven years, the Social Democrats have played down the importance of NATO as an alliance. Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg opposed any attempt by the alliance during the U.S.-led war in Iraq to assist the U.S. coalition forces.

"The mood in NATO is quite sanguine," said James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman. "We know what we have to do. We are preparing high-level talks next month which will be attended by experts."

Despite charges from Social Democrats and even from some in Merkel's party that Washington has not been talking to its allies or to Russian officials, there have been several high-level consultations at NATO headquarters and in Moscow led by Henry Obering, the U.S general in charge of the missile defense agency.

So far, in public at least, U.S. officials have not questioned the tone of any of the criticism from the German left, as was the case after Gerhard Schröder, the former Social Democratic chancellor, narrowly won re-election in 2002 after criticizing the Bush administration's actions toward Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed that Russia has nothing to fear about the system. Speaking this week after talks in Washington with the German foreign minister, the Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Rice said: "Russia and the United States have a good working relationship in which very few would contemplate the notion of a nuclear exchange."

Steinmeier, questioned about his criticism of the U.S. plan, replied in measured terms. The American need for protection was "legitimate," he said, adding that German criticism of the system was "not a disruption of American-German relations, none whatsoever."