The Big Question: How has Angela Merkel become the key player on Europe's political stage?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

The German leader is dominating the European political landscape at the moment, with her meeting with Barack Obama in Berlin next Thursday being billed as the Democrat candidate's most important stop over in Europe. Echoing President John F Kennedy, Mr Obama intends to use the city as a backdrop to spell out his vision for a renewal of the US-European relationship.

And in brokering this week's landmark prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbollah, Mrs Merkel's government has once again proved itself as the driving force behind a solution to one of the world's most intractable political problems.

How has Germany taken up such an important role in the Middle East?

German secret service agents played a central role in negotiating the last two major prisoner swaps, in 1996 and 2004. Unlike most other nations involved in attempts to resolve the Middle East crisis, Germany is nowadays renowned throughout the region as an "honest broker". In Washington, Germany was described as the most important participant in this week's prisoner-swap negotiations.

In what other ways can Mrs Merkel be considered powerful?

In the four years since she was elected Germany's first woman Chancellor at the head of a grand coalition government of conservatives and Social Democrats, Mrs Merkel has scored a string of foreign policy triumphs for her country. These have helped her to win the Forbes magazine title of "most powerful woman in the world" two years in succession. In Germany she was last week polled the country's most popular post-war Chancellor on record. More than 62 per cent of Germans thought that she was doing as good job.

What foreign policy triumphs are we talking about?

Almost as soon as she took office, Mrs Merkel flew to Washington to repair the disastrously damaged US-German relationship caused by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder's vociferous opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. She then won more respect by changing Germany's stance towards Russia and China. Unlike her predecessor, she has criticised both countries over human rights abuses. Last September she met Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in her Berlin Chancellery and provoked an outcry from Beijing.

Germany's Nato allies are angry that Mrs Merkel steadfastly refuses to commit German troops to southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Instead, the German mission is restricted to the far more peaceful north. Her reason for not doing so is that more than 65 per cent of Germans are strongly opposed to sending troops south.

What about her position within the EU?

Her first term does not end until September 2009, but Mrs Merkel has already become a veteran EU leader. Some of this can be put down to the fact that her two most important European counterparts, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, are, by comparison, new to their jobs. Both have suffered problems at home, while Mrs Merkel has been described as Europe's No 1 politician by her own media.

Again her reputation can be put down to her success as a solution finder. At her first EU summit she brokered a key deal on financing. Within the Franco-German alliance, she proved her abilities as driver recently by forcing Mr Sarkozy to rewrite his plans for a Mediterranean union. Despite its rejection by Ireland, she also takes credit for brokering an almost acceptable solution on the European constitution.

What about her credentials on global warming?

Mrs Merkel may be leader of Germany's conservative Christian Democrats but she managed to win a reputation as the "Green" Chancellor: she hosted last year's G8 summit on Germany's Baltic coast and managed to secure an initial global agreement on carbon emissions. At this year's G8 summit in Japan the emissions targets were cut even further and formally ratified. In environmentalist Germany, her popularity soared even higher in 2007 when, during Germany's EU presidency, she reached an agreement on ambitious carbon emission targets for the first time.

Is she really so green?

She is reputed to use low-energy light bulbs in her Berlin flat, but Germany's Green Party, which is the first in Europe ever to have been in government, argues that most of her carbon reduction targets are too low. She has also been roundly criticised within the EU for being in the pocket of Germany's hugely powerful car manufacturing lobby. The car makers are behind her refusal to contemplate the introduction of speed limits on Germany's legendary "go as fast as you like" autobahns.

How successful has she been in Germany?

Surprisingly unsuccessful. She was once described as Germany's answer to Margaret Thatcher, but her unwieldy grand coalition has forced Mrs Merkel to make a string of compromises which have rolled back many of the ambitious reforms introduced by her predecessors. Many of these reforms were specifically designed to cut Germany's high unemployment levels. Unemployment has declined, but the critics argue that it could have been reduced further if the reforms had been properly adhered to.

How is she seen by the media?

Just four years ago, Angela Merkel – the daughter of a Protestant churchman brought up in Communist East Germany – was dismissed as a dowdy goody two-shoes. She was considered to have abysmal dress sense and to be incapable of making an effective political speech.

Since then, a sea change has taken place. Her modest style is now thought of as the epitome of good German values: hard-working, unpretentious, straight-forward and sincere. "It is as if Germany had been waiting for this change of style," remarked Die Zeit newspaper.

Apart from an eyebrow-raisingly low neckline during a visit to Oslo earlier this year, her dress sense and confidence before the cameras have also improved.

So is Mrs Merkel's dominance set to continue?

Yes...

* Her popularity suggests that she has an excellent chance of winning next year's elections

* There are no obvious candidates elsewhere in Europe who are capable of challenging her supremacy

* She is committed to the European Union and to continuing as Chancellor at the head of a conservative-led coalition government

No...

* Her conservative party is nowhere near as popular as Mrs Merkel herself; polls suggest it would win only 37 per cent of the vote

* She does not want to form another grand coalition and could find it difficult to forge a workable alliance with other parties

* Germany's Social Democrats could form an alliance with the radical Left Party that would force her out of office

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