Old Europe's Fischer visits Australia

4th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

4 February 2005 , SYDNEY - Some European leaders were surprised when Australia volunteered 3,000 troops for the US-led invasion of Iraq. They shouldn't have been: Australians have fought alongside Americans in every major conflict since World War II, and the partners and friends have a formal military pact. But two years on and Prime Minister John Howard's recently re-elected conservative government is keen to take the chill out of relations with most of Europe that set in when Canberra signed up to US Pre

4 February 2005 

SYDNEY - Some European leaders were surprised when Australia volunteered 3,000 troops for the US-led invasion of Iraq.

They shouldn't have been: Australians have fought alongside Americans in every major conflict since World War II, and the partners and friends have a formal military pact.

But two years on and Prime Minister John Howard's recently re-elected conservative government is keen to take the chill out of relations with most of Europe that set in when Canberra signed up to US President George W. Bush's coalition of the willing.

"We know there have been divisions over Iraq," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, current holder of the European Union presidency. "That's all history. We've got to work for the future now."

It's the same message that awaits German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer when he meets Howard, Downer and other senior officials in Canberra next week.

Fischer is on a nine-day sweep through the region that begins in East Timor and will take him to Australia, New Zealand and to Indonesia's tsunami-devastated Aceh province. Fischer's trip will end in Malaysia.

Howard, in power since 1996 and re-elected in October with an enhanced majority, has emerged as a confident and significant player on the world stage. He presides over a powerhouse economy and can boast of the twin accomplishment of being on excellent terms with both the US and China.

Howard will take into his talks with Fischer the enhanced credibility of having been the first of the major coalition of the willing partners - the US, Britain and Australia - to lay his Iraq war record before the electors and get back into office. President Bush followed in November and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is tipped to complete the trifecta with an election victory later this year.

Howard is a careful and cautious man, not given to grandstanding or verbal jousting. But at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, late last month he proved a boon to reporters when he chided "Old Europe" - France and Germany - for "unfair and irrational" criticism of Bush and U.S. foreign policy.

"I found the French and the German attitude has lingered longer than I thought it might, and longer than is in anyone's interests," Howard said in a widely reported debate in the ski resort.

When he meets Fischer in Canberra's Parliament House, Howard is likely to put forward the same proposition.

But the keynote of the talks is likely to be cordiality and an expressed willingness to put aside past difference over the Iraq invasion. It was the tone that Downer took in his meetings with the Luxembourg foreign minister and with other senior officials he met during his time in Europe.

Downer met French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, telling him that there was a "complete meeting of minds" on the success of the Iraq poll and that everyone should look to the future.

"I think we are entering now a much better climate between Europe and the United States and we look forward to a constructive visit to Europe by President Bush at the end of this month," Downer said during his visit to Paris. Barnier accepted an invitation to follow Fischer and visit Australia before the end of the year.

Bush is scheduled to visit EU headquarters in Brussels 22 February. Howard, like Bush, is keen to internationalise the rebuilding of Iraq.

Australia has not set a deadline for the withdrawal of the 980 troops it retains in Iraq but is under public pressure to come up with an exit strategy.

Persuading Germany and other European countries to commit more resources to Iraq would be on Howard's to-do list in the meeting with Fischer.

The German foreign minister is likely to lobby for a permanent seat for Germany on an expanded UN Security Council. While Australia is not averse to Germany sitting on the Security Council, its proposals are for a vastly expanded body that gives greater weight to emerging Asian powers like India and Japan. Australia does not have a seat on the Security Council and so cannot lobby on Germany's behalf.

Fischer, a member of Germany's Greens Party, a junior member in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's ruling Social Democrat-led coalition, is guaranteed to urge Canberra to desert the U.S. and accede to the Kyoto Protocol on curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

The US and Australia are the only countries to boycott the international effort to set binding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In return for an earful about the need to tackle climate change, Fischer is sure to hear a lecture on the evils of the EU's agricultural policy and the urgency of demolishing barriers to trade.

While in Paris, Downer spoke of the need to "ensure that agricultural export subsidies are eliminated and that there is better access to the markets of the rich world for farmers of the poor world".

The World Trade Organisation has its next meeting in Hong Kong in December, and Canberra is trying to whip up enthusiasm for some more tariff busting.

Last week television pictures flashed round the region of Howard visiting a field hospital in quake-ravaged Aceh that was staffed by both Australian and German doctors.

Germany has been a very generous donor to the disaster relief effort, with Berlin committing EUR 500 million (USD 653 million) and public donations raising almost equal that amount.

The Australia government has committed AUD 1 billion (USD 770 million) to helping Indonesia, with the public raising almost AUD 200 million.

It's Fischer's third visit to Asia in eight months and also underscores the Berlin government's determination to enmesh ever more closely with the region's economies.

Just how startlingly global the reach of Germany's corporates has become was demonstrated this month when a sales and marketing promotion began in Australia for a VW Golf built in China.

Australians have become increasingly aware of Germany's commercial might with the phenomenal success of discount retailer Aldi in making inroads against the country's two giant retailers, Coles Myer and Woolworths, which together control 60 percent of the nation's grocery outlay.

Aldi, which has taken a 3 percent market share since it started opening stores five years ago, has been hailed by government officials as a welcome entrant into a competition-starved sector. 

DPA

Subject: German news

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