Wolfgang Gerhardt - Germany's foreign minister?

5th September 2005, Comments 0 comments

5 September 2005, BERLIN - Wolfgang who? This will likely be the response of many people abroad and not a few at home if Wolfgang Gerhardt becomes Germany's next foreign minister.

5 September 2005

BERLIN - Wolfgang who? This will likely be the response of many people abroad and not a few at home if Wolfgang Gerhardt becomes Germany's next foreign minister.

A career politician, Gerhardt, is viewed as a frontrunner to become Germany's chief diplomat replacing Joschka Fischer of the Greens if Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is toppled in September 18 elections.

Gerhardt, 61, has focused on foreign affairs for the past decade, first as Free Democratic Party (FDP) chairman and since 2001 as his party's leader in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.

His tiny FDP traditionally supplies foreign ministers in coalitions, in which it plays kingmaker and the Free Democrats are tipped by polls to help bring Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) to power later this month.

Gerhardt would follow the legendary Hans-Dietrich Genscher who served as FDP foreign minister under Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor Helmut Schmidt and then CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl for 18 years. Genscher's successor, Klaus Kinkel, was also from the FDP.

A moderate voice on foreign policy, Gerhardt's speeches have often been efforts to bridge the gap between the Left wing and conservatives in parliament.

Gerhardt grew up on a small farm never knowing his father who was killed in World War II. He studied politics, literature and education. An impeccably-mannered intellectual, he speaks English and Latin.

Diplomats who have worked with him - speaking on condition of anonymity - say he has a solid knowledge of foreign affairs but complain that he lacks a strong strategic vision.

"He's still not in the league of a Schaeuble," said a diplomat in a reference to the sharp-minded Wolfgang Schaeuble who was named by Merkel as her shadow cabinet member in charge of foreign affairs.

The powerful and wily Schaeuble could pose problems for Gerhardt as foreign minister.

Both Schroeder and Kohl came to sideline their foreign ministers and make major decisions in the chancellery with the help of an in- house foreign policy adviser - a job which Schaeuble may prefer over that of foreign minister given that he has been confined to a wheelchair since being shot by a deranged man in 1990. (Gerhardt has also has had health problems. After a heart attack in 1995 he underwent a bypass operation.)

Nevertheless, Gerhardt and Merkel appear to be largely in agreement on the major foreign policy questions.

Gerhardt has long been a firm supporter of strong ties with the U.S., which have cooled under Schroeder who was at the forefront of opposition to the Iraq war.

He would be expected to give top priority to ties with Washington which are described in the foreign policy section of the FDP's election platform as "the structural constant of German foreign policy since 1945".

But some elements of Schroeder's policy would remain in place: "We won't send any German soldiers to Iraq," vows Gerhardt.

On Iran's nuclear programme, Gerhardt also takes a cautious line which may displease Washington.

"The U.S. has found peace with India and Pakistan, both of whom acquired nuclear power status through their contempt for the Non-Proliferation Treaty," said Gerhardt in an interview with Der Spiegel news magazine.

"If it's acceptable there, one can hardly threaten another country - with which, incidentally, negotiations are ongoing - with the military option."

Regarding Turkey's bid to join the European Union (E.U.), Gerhardt is highly skeptical over whether Ankara will ever meet E.U. standards on rule of law, minority rights and an independent judiciary.

But unlike Merkel, who flatly rejects allowing Turkey to become an E.U. member, Gerhardt says negotiations should be held over the coming decade with possible outcomes left open.

Chancellor Schroeder, in contrast, is a major backer of Turkish E.U. membership.

While backing continued close ties to France, Gerhardt is determined to expand Germany's relations with Britain.

He supports British Prime Minister Tony Blair's bid to cut E.U. farm subsidies which devour almost half of the bloc's 100 billion euro (125 billion dollar) annual budget.

Unlike Schroeder, who cut a deal with Paris to keep farm subsidies in place until 2013, Gerhardt is determined to have "urgent talks" to push France on the issue, which he predicts will be "pretty animated".

Germany might also change its tune towards Russia if Merkel and Gerhardt take office.

Gerhardt is highly critical of the situation in Chechnya, which he accuses Schroeder of having put on the back burner out of consideration for his close political friendship with Putin.

"(Russia) lacks a legal culture. Independent media are being shut down. The situation in Chechnya is a sheer tragedy of violence and counter-violence," he said in a recent speech to parliament.

Policy on China would also likely face small but significant changes under Gerhardt, if he becomes foreign minister.

Lifting the E.U. arms embargo imposed on China after the bloody 1989 crackdown by Beijing on pro-democracy protests - a move strongly backed by Schroeder - would be a "big mistake", he warns.

The FDP has set its conditions for selling arms to Beijing: a major improvement in human rights and the end of tensions with Taiwan.

Cultural autonomy for Tibet and improved minority and religious rights also top Gerhardt's goals for China.


Subject: German news

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