The Irish Times -
EUROPEAN DIARY: Angela Merkel's life story
is symbolic of the change that has
transformed Europe, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY
ANGELA MERKEL, who herself was among
the throngs that made their way through
the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, recalled last week
the restrictions of life in the communist bloc.
In a moving speech to the joint houses
of the US Congress in Washington,
the German chancellor told how simple things
easily taken for granted were
beyond the reach of her family.
Her mother, who had studied English
and Latin to become a teacher, was not
allowed to work in her chosen profession
in the German Democratic Republic.
The younger Merkel, for whom it was beyond
the imagination to even think about travelling
to America, created her own picture of the US
from films and books.
Some of those tomes were
smuggled from the west by relatives, just as
an aunt sent her a certain brand of jeans
from the other side of the frontier.
"The Wall, barbed wire and the order to shoot
those who tried to leave, limited my access
to the free world," she said.
Merkel was 35 when the Wall came down,
releasing pent-up political force across
central and eastern Europe that would
swiftly bring the Soviet empire to heel.
Soon she would leave the world of physics
behind to devote herself, with remarkable
success, to politics.
"Not even in my wildest dreams could I have
imagined, 20 years ago before the Wall fell,
that this would happen," she said of her address
in Washington as leader of a reunited Germany.
"A person who has experienced such
a positive surprise in life believes
that much is possible."
The chancellor, who said elsewhere last week
that she did not at first believe the Wall's demise
would quickly lead to reunification, was host
last night of festivities to mark
the 20th anniversary of that seismic event.
A cascade of revolutionary change followed
the Wall's destruction, bringing half a continent
into the democratic arena and resetting
the parameters of the political world.
Among its results was the EU's historic
enlargement in 2004, when eight former
eastern bloc countries joined the union
(another two followed in 2007).
Thus there is no small irony in the fact that
EU politics is at present transfixed with
the appointment of the first president
of the European Council and
a new foreign policy chief.
The two jobs were created under the Lisbon Treaty
in an extensive package of highly detailed
institutional reform that was designed to make
the EU easier to manage following
enlargement and more democratic.
As EU leaders gathered in Berlin for
last night's festivities, they cannot but have
had names and respective merits
of potential nominees on their lips.
With Tony Blair's lustre dimming, the momentum
for the council presidency seems at present
to be with Belgium's haiku-writing prime minister,
Herman Van Rompuy.
That such a low-key figure, virtually unknown
outside his own country, should emerge
as favourite at this late stage says much
about the likely profile of
the eventual appointee, whoever
it turns out to be.
Although one vision for the job is that it
should go to a global figure capable
of projecting the EU and its political stance
on the world stage, leaders at present seem
keen to pursue an appointee with
an altogether more modest mandate.
Only with time will the merits of pursuing
that course be gauged, although it is already
clear that the EU and its members can
be crowded out with ease by the US and China
in debate and negotiation
on big issues such as the environment.
On the flip side, however, a low-key council
president devoted to chairing and
preparing meetings of EU government leaders
is unlikely to outshine major leaders such
as Merkel and her French counterpart,
Nicolas Sarkozy, on the world stage.
Now seeking to back a common candidate
for the post, they appear to have divined
the selection of just such
a nominee would be in their interest.
Whoever gets the job will be charged with
the mammoth task of steering EU leaders
through the Lisbon reforms when the treaty
comes into force next month.
Elegant they are not, as anyone who has tried
to read the document can attest.
Still, turning the lofty aims of democracy
into political and institutional reality
is never straightforward and
is fraught with compromise.
Amid the current celebrations, it seems rather
obvious, but no less important, to point out
that what the accession states now have
is a great deal better than what went before.
Countries suppressed for generations by
the yoke of communism and its
secret policemen are free and
governed by the rule of law.
Those societies are still poorer than the rest
of Europe, but economic ruin and political chaos
did not transpire when the old order passed away.
Merkel's was just one life among many millions
transformed by the change.
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda