The crowd outside Berlin's Hotel Adlon last Tuesday night didn't care about Tony Blair. They were more interested in catching a glimpse of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes on the brink of their engagement. They probably weren't even aware that in almost the same spot a day earlier the PM had flashed at lightning speed into the building next door. Tony knew it would be a tough job to persuade Germany to back the British position in the Brussels summit, and Friday night's stalemate gave rise to unprecedented expressions in language far from communautaire. But Blair, who knows a thing or two about backing winners, was doing some important groundwork for his forthcoming stint in the European presidency. He defied diplomatic convention - and affronted some high up in the German government - by choosing to meet the Leader of the Opposition before he met Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Angela Merkel, the woman all the polls say will become Germany's leader in the September elections, showed extraordinary sympathy for Blair's position. If Schröder is dead meat politically, as many believe, then his recent intransigence need not concern Blair. Tomorrow belongs to "Angie".
It was probably the best start to the week that Blair could have hoped for, and three days later, Merkel went public. "It does not make it easy when one side says the agricultural subsidies are sacrosanct, we cannot touch them, and then flexibility is demanded from others," she told the German parliament. "The British must move, that is indisputable, but compromises cannot be expected from one side when the other side says that its benefits are sacrosanct." Could this be the beginning of an Anglo-German love affair? Or is it, as the wagging tongues suggest of Cruise's fresh engagement, one huge PR stunt? A closer look at Merkel's track record suggests Blair should stay on his guard. "Sie geht über Leichen," warn the more critical German political commentators. They mean simply that Merkel has risen to the top by walking on the corpses of the men who first helped her rise, and whom she swiftly stabs in the back once they are no longer of any use. Opinion polls say she is now a shoo-in: her CDU party leads by 22 per cent.
Angela Dorothea Kasner, the eldest of three children, spent 35 years in Communist East Germany. She was born in West Germany, in Hamburg, but her father, a Lutheran pastor, accepted a job in a seminary and headed east. Growing up in rural eastern Brandenburg, Merkel learned to slip easily between a public life obeying the laws of the German Democratic Republic and a home life where her father read the Bible and openly criticised the system. It was a childhood that taught her never to give too much away; a thorough political training in playing her cards close to her chest. To school friends, "Kasi" was "a bit weird" and "deeply ambitious". A star organiser in the Communist youth organisation, the FDJ, she worked hard and achieved constantly high grades.
Later, she studied physics at Leipzig University, before moving on to become a quantum chemistry researcher in East Berlin. Science, however, had been a purely pragmatic choice; merely a vehicle to keep her nose out of Communist politics. "I would have loved to have become a teacher," Merkel has admitted. "But not under that political system. Physics was harmless and uncontroversial." Her move into politics came late, in 1989. But Merkel positioned herself well, and it was a rapid rise to the top.
As popular resistance to Communism grew in the GDR, she joined the Democratic Renewal, a pro-democracy group, serving as spokeswoman for Lothar de Maizière, East Germany's only democratically elected leader. Within a year, Merkel had moved on, joining the CDU, the West German Christian Democrats, who were hungry for new talent.
As reunification took place, she asked to be introduced to Helmut Kohl. He spotted her ambition and took her under his wing. On Kohl's re-election in 1994, the woman he called "Das Mädchen" became Environment minister. By the time the truth broke about the huge financial irregularities in the party, she had openly distanced herself from Kohl and the sleaze. She wrote a devastating article in the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about the man who had made her political career. Kohl wasn't the first man she had dumped. Described as a cool, calculating tactician, the young Merkel was revealed to be a sexually liberal character in the Stasi reports on her. She had many love affairs, none of which lasted more than six months. One informant told the East German secret police that when he picked her up for work in the mornings he would often meet her lovers standing at the front door wrapped only in their dressing gowns.
Her first marriage, in 1977 at the age of 23, was to Ulrich Merkel, a staid East German student, whose name she still bears. The marriage was short-lived and, five years later, the pair divorced. "She appears to have had the discussion about ending our marriage just with herself," says Ulrich Merkel. "And she also drew her own conclusions." She left without warning.
More recently, Merkel has played with the heartfelt political aspirations of members of her own party. Wolfgang Schäuble, a former CDU chairman, was desperate to become Germany's president. Insiders say Merkel never promised anything, but continued for months to let him believe the candidature was his. At the last moment she announced that Horst Köhler, an international, forward-thinking figure, would stand for the post. The choice entirely served Merkel's ends. It was her first big victory since being elected CDU leader in 2000. Köhler as the new President was the first sniff in the air that political change in Germany was possible, and Merkel could be the woman to lead it.
Merkel, 51 next month, has since married Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor. Men tend to underestimate the dumpy, childless Ossi divorcee. Despite the obvious similarities, she is not a Teutonic Margaret Thatcher. She may be tough, but she has an immediate personal affability. "Das Mädchen" is a girl's girl and has surrounded herself with female advisers. She is a regular in the Berlin women's networking salon run by the political talk show host Sabine Christensen. There, she is a proponent of women's rights and often complains loudly about the glass ceiling restricting women in the workplace.
As the German general election approaches, Merkel - as usual -is playing a closed game. She is yet to reveal the specifics of her manifesto: her only vote-winning pledges so far are to reduce the numbers of Germany's five million unemployed, deregulate the economy and savagely cut back the bureaucracy. Whatever the details, "it would be a very, very light Thatcherism", says Wolfgang Stock, one of Merkel's biographers.
"For a start, she would never fight the unions like Mrs Thatcher because there are so many union members in her own party." Merkel supported Blair on the rebate and she admires George Bush. Analysts believe that if she is elected on 18 September, soured US-German relations will be repaired within weeks. But she is not Blair's soulmate on everything. Merkelhas already made it clear she is against Turkey joining the European Union, while Britain continues to preach that the EU is better when it is bigger.
In fact, Merkel is ahead of Schröder in the polls on all issues except foreign policy. Last Monday, Blair may have believed that "Angie" was there to save him. But, actually, it was the other way round. This is a political love affair very much to Merkel's advantage. And that is a lesson the newly-engaged Tom Cruise, accelerating towards middle age and rumoured to be desperate to attract a younger audience, might also do well to heed.
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