Europe's Iron Lady; the Continent Is Making a Comeback, Big Time, Led by Germany and Its Chancellor Angela Merkel. She Is, in Her Quiet Way, the New Tony Blair

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Byline: Stryker McGuire (With William Underhill in Dusseldorf, Juliane Von Reppert-Bismarck in Brussels Andtracy Mcnicoll in Paris)

For the better part of a decade, he bestrode Europe like few other politicians--a truly transformative leader in the tradition of a Thatcher or de Gaulle. Tony Blair was often divisive. He was never the ardent European many hoped. Yet, as he prepares to stand down as prime minister, the question inevitably arises: who, in Europe, can fill his shoes?

Probably not his all-but-certain successor, Gordon Brown, at least not soon. The searing experience of Iraq has left Britain mired in cynicism about government, and Brown will have his hands full trying to repair the damage.

Nor can a new French president expect to play the heavyweight in Europe's affairs. For the foreseeable future France's fixation will be its own troubled economy--and an accompanying crisis of national identity. Italy's Romano Prodi and Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero are middleweight powers, sidelined by their own problems at home. Arise, then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, champion of Europe.

She was "the girl" to Helmut Kohl, the father of unification and a titan of his age. Yet not even Kohl--for a variety of historical reasons, now passing--could play the role that Merkel, 52, is growing into: Germany's first truly Pan-European leader. Since becoming chancellor in 2005, she has grown quickly in stature. She is presiding over a sudden and extraordinary economic boom that some have dubbed Wirtschaftswunder 2.0--a second industrial miracle, not glimpsed since the golden era of the ' 60s. She's retooled the Franco-German compact that has traditionally run the European Union, establishing that Berlin increasingly calls the shots in the Union, not Paris, as she demonstrated in muscling through her famous EU budget compromise just a month after taking office. She's shaken up the cozy relationship between Germany and Russia that was a hallmark of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder. Most significantly, she's repaired her country's relationship with the United States--so much so that Berlin is edging out London as Washington's first port of call on European matters, a shift confirmed even by several senior British government officials. Indeed these officials wouldn't quarrel with the judgment by Spiegel Online: "Merkel is the new Tony Blair."

Angela certainly got the Tony treatment during her early May visit in Washington for the annual

U.S.-EU summit. President George W. Bush outdid himself in welcoming her. But Merkel's Blairite credentials are not just for show. She has borrowed consciously from Blair, according to advisers close to both. Like Blair, Merkel is convinced that going head-to-head against the United States--the way the French have done--is a dead end. Whether the issue is Middle East policy, trade or climate change, she believes that nothing can be accomplished without partnering with the United States.

Yet Merkel clearly differs from Blair. First, she has come to power toward the end of Bush's era. The U.S. president is no more popular in Germany than in Britain, but Merkel suffers less taint by association, not only because Germans know that he will soon be gone, but also because the Iraq War (which she backed before she came to power) is fading as an issue. Perhaps more important, the alliance Merkel seeks to forge with America is primarily economic. It's about what one of her advisers calls "a larger common market," in which Europe and the United States attempt to replicate the economic advantages that the EU has accrued by dismantling trade barriers and harmonizing regulatory regimes. Merkel does not share Blair's missionary foreign policy. Her interests lie less with an abstract "war on terror" than in commercial practicalities. Thus, while Blair leaves office a humbled, tragic figure, Merkel basks in 70 percent approval ratings.

Merkel's pro-American tilt reflects her life story: an East German physicist who became politically active after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. …