Angela Merkel arrived in Washington last week as the brightest star in the European firmament, twinkling with an intensity far greater than that of the twinklers from France, Italy or Spain. She hasn't yet fulfilled her promise as the German Margaret Thatcher because she's hasn't initiated the economic reforms that would reduce high unemployment rates, nor has she cut radically into the waste and blubber of the welfare state. She has done nothing about the unions' intransigence to change.
She's limited because she won election by a razor-thin margin, and her Grand Coalition is a little less than grand. But her approval rating, running in the 70s, is twice that of President Bush, and if she can stay in office, she may yet achieve a lot.
The good part, for us, is that she's a lot friendlier to the United States than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was usually not friendly at all. The president and Merkel clearly like each other and presented a strong united front against Iranian "uranium development," i.e., nuclear development. "We are in total agreement, saying that under no circumstances must Iran be allowed to come into possession of nuclear weapons," she told reporters as she left the Oval Office. She had exhibited an air of authority in meetings with the European Union leaders, a willingness to do what it takes to bring other countries into the fold over Iran, and this air of confidence guided her through Washington.
Nevertheless, she's a rosy-cheeked sweet young thing compared to her anemic geriatric counterparts in France and Italy. Consumer and business confidence is moving in her direction, and she looks forward to an economic boost when 12 German cities host the World Cup soccer tournament next month.
But there's a dark side to the German culture that should put a deeper blush on Frau Merkel's complexion as she mounts center stage when soccer focuses world attention on Germany. Prostitution is legal in Germany, and police worry that thousands of women will be imported illegally from Eastern Europe and other poor countries and put up for auction in the sex markets.
Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, chairman of a House committee on human rights, held hearings on the sex trade last week and urged the president to take up the matter with Frau Merkel. "While the winner of the World Cup remains unknown," he said, "the clear losers will be thousands of women and children trafficked and exploited in Germany's legal sex industry to accommodate the huge influx of demand . . . generated by male fans attending the games."
To accommodate spectators, Germany is building mega-brothels, smaller "sex huts" and will even issue special permits for hookers on the streets. Estimates suggest 400,0000 prostitutes will be plying their trade legally, but forced prostitution is a serious crime and a problem for the European community. Police estimate that as many as 40,000 young women from other countries could be forced into the sex traffic. Theo Zwanziger, president of the German Soccer Federation, concedes that it could be troublesome, and told der Spiegel magazine that he supports a program called "Final Whistle -- Stop Forced Prostitution." Posters will be plastered in bars, trains and in restrooms to draw attention to sex exploitation, and as bizarre as it sounds to us there's even a program urging "Responsible Johns" to do the right thing (whatever that is).
A posh brothel has opened near Berlin's Olympic Stadium, site of the World Cup championship match. The decor is a something between vulgar German kitsch and vulgar Las Vegas kitsch, with pools, saunas, mirrors and faux Greek and Roman statues beneath Moorish arches. In Cologne, the largest brothel in Europe posted flags of the 32 nations competing in the World Cup. When Saudi Arabian and Iranian flags were placed beneath a fetching Western beauty in nothing more than pink panties, Muslims in black masks demanded their removal, assigning new meaning to the word chutzpah, given Saudi and Iranian mistreatment of women. But the owners complied, no doubt expecting Saudi and Iranian business once the flags were furled.
Reality trumped satire when the Germans began training ex-hookers to take jobs in nursing homes, where there's a shortage of help. With prices tumbling in the brothels and women eager for respectable work, the Germans insist this is "a logical move." One nursing-home director says her trainees after all have good "people skills" and "zero fear of contact." So they have taken literally Angela Merkel's slogan for creating jobs: Invest, Rehabilitate, Reform.