A global player

16 November 2001

Germany took centrestage in the world political arena at the end of November - an unfamiliar place for a country that has kept a deliberately low profile for more than 50 years. But on 27 November, the fortress of Petersberg, near Bonn, witnessed the opening of the Afghan peace talks. Under the umbrella of the UN, leaders of Afghanistan's various ethnic and political groupings met to discuss forming an interim government for a nation that has been torn apart by conflict for more than 20 years.

Germany was chosen to host the talks because it is considered a neutral player in global politics and has strong ties with many Muslim nations, particularly Iran and Turkey. Relations have also been good with Afghanistan since the 1920s, when King Amanullah was on the throne.

Whether the Bonn talks will be successful has yet to be seen. However, this is the second time this year that Germany has raised its profile in the Middle East and openly assumed the role of mediator. On 1 June, while on a visit to Tel Aviv, Foreign Affairs Minister Joschka Fischer became involved in a flurry of diplomatic activity between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Fischer's visit coincided with a suicide bomb attack on an Israeli nightclub, and he subsequently embarked on a diplomatic mission aimed at avoiding the escalation of violence.

Germany has since tried to play a greater role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, although officials have repeatedly stressed that its foreign policy in the region will continue to be in line with EU objectives.

Germany's new role on the international stage heralds the end of an era. For five decades after the end of the Second World War, the country was virtually absent from world politics, despite its strong economic showing. But times are changing. Today, the vast majority of Germany's political, intellectual and economic elite only experienced the war as children - if at all. For them, being the major economic power in Europe also means taking on greater responsibilities in the world.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is at the forefront of the mission to pursue these ambitions. And his visions of turning the country into a truly global player do not stop short of taking on new tasks such as deploying German troops in crisis areas when required. During Schroeder's term, which began in 1998, the country has sent German troops to participate on UN humanitarian operations in Kosovo and East Timor. Following the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington, Schroeder went even further - offering unlimited solidarity with the US and agreeing to despatch up to 3,900 German troops to support the war against terrorism.

While Germany's allies have welcomed the move, domestic opposition has been fierce. Much of the resistance has come from within the government coalition, which comprises Schroeder's Social Democratic party (SPD) and the Green party - many of whose 50,000 members retain deep roots in the peace movement.

The situation escalated on 16 November into a vote of confidence motion, tabled by Schroeder to coerce anti-military Green party and SPD supporters into toeing the government line. Only with a tiny majority was the chancellor able to save the government and avoid an early general election.

Schroeder's victory was boosted by the outcome of the Greens' annual conference on 24-25 November, where more than two-thirds of party delegates unexpectedly voted in favour of deploying German troops.

Both decisions have secured the survival of the SPD/Green coalition until autumn 2002, when general elections are scheduled. However, if the chancellor is to win popular support for a second term, he will need to put more emphasis on the economy.

Europe's largest economy, accounting for almost a quarter of the EU's gross domestic product (GDP), has weakened throughout the year and is now slipping into recession. GDP is expected to grow by only 0.7 per cent in 2001, far below last year's 3 per cent figure. And the outlook remains gloomy, with no strong recovery predicted in 2002.

This will exacerbate one of Germany's most serious problems, unemployment, which stands at about 9.5 per cent. The figure is likely to increase further during the winter, as the global economic downturn leads to more job cuts and seasonal unemployment increases. Tackling the issue will be a serious challenge for the Schroeder government and a dominating topic in the run-up to the elections.

Other issues will also be high on the agenda. The government has committed itself to introducing a reformed state pension system next year, allowing Germans for the first time to invest 1 per cent of their gross wages into private savings instruments such as stock and bond funds as well as insurance products.

Some tasks are likely to have to wait until after the election before being addressed. For years, successive German governments have been trying to find solutions to issues that hamper competitiveness. These include rigid labour market structures, high taxes, too much red tape and an outdated social welfare system.

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