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Merkel may ease diplomatic tension between Germany, U.S.

BERLIN—It's Saturday morning and one of the world's most powerful women is lugging heavy six-packs of bottled water from a neighborhood grocery store to her official limousine.

A bemused visitor approaches a smirking bodyguard, one of three young, muscular men standing nearby and exclaims, "Why don't you help her? Would you stand by and watch your mother struggle like this?"

"She's not my mother," he replies. "She's the chancellor."

Germany's first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, is carrying a lot of water for Europe these days in talks with the United States. In what commentators are calling "Germany's moment," Merkel has just taken over as president of the European Union, and she has ready access to the Bush administration. She's said she intends to call for more economic ties between Europe and the United States and to push for Middle East peace.

But, just as at the market, Merkel's diplomatic efforts are noticed but hardly spurring others to action.

"There's not a lot left for Europe to say to President Bush regarding Iraq," said Julie Smith, the deputy director of Cambridge University's Centre for International Studies. "It's clear she's talking, but he's made it clear he doesn't want to listen."

Germany's falling-out with Bush stems largely from Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, and his harsh criticism of plans to invade Iraq, which he said would increase the terror threat to the West. Unlike Schroeder, a left-of-center Social Democrat, Merkel, a right-of-center Christian Democrat, has criticized elements of U.S. policy in Iraq but has been supportive overall.

The fact that Berlin is U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's first stop on Wednesday after leaving the Middle East is a clear sign of Merkel's status, 14 months into her chancellorship.

On one level, she's been handed the figurehead role because other European leaders, including Tony Blair of Britain, Jacques Chirac of France, Romano Prodi of Italy and Jose Zapatero of Spain, are politically shaky.

By comparison, Merkel looks strong, even though recent polls indicate she's fallen from a 61 percent approval rating in December 2005 to 54 percent in December 2006.

Still, Merkel has had modest domestic success.

The German budget met European Union deficit criteria for the first time since the introduction of the euro. Merkel passed a highly popular child subsidy to encourage Germans to have more babies. Economic growth beat projections in her first year in office.

Experts agree that Merkel's strength is in international relations. She has maintained strong French ties and greatly improved relations with the United States and Britain. (By contrast, neither Bush nor Blair got on well with Schroeder.)

She doesn't necessarily lead, but she does maintain communications with everyone. She met with Bush in Washington earlier this month. She'll meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week.

Germans believe that, while polite, Merkel is very firm. She expressed strong concerns about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Bush and is expected to chastise Putin on Russian energy policy (which twice in the last year has led to shutoffs because of disputes with former Soviet nations).

Merkel relates well to Bush personally. She's the daughter of a Lutheran minister, which for the deeply religious Bush is a break from the largely secular nature of European politics.

Still, Dick Leurdijk, an expert on security issues for the Dutch research center Clingendael Institute, said Iraq clouds all issues between the United States and Europe, and there may be no way to overcome that during the Bush administration.

"Bush has made it clear he's going to do what he wants in Iraq. He doesn't really seem to care what Europe, or the rest of the world, thinks," he said.

But Germany has a substantial number of troops in Afghanistan and has since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. NATO has been pushing for a larger European effort in Afghanistan, both in deploying troops and in taking on more aggressive missions. Leurdijk said such discussions could affect Iraq, as additional European forces in Afghanistan could free up U.S. forces for Iraq.

Smith, of Cambridge, said the U.S. and Europe also disagree on environmental issues, a Middle East peace plan and the role of international organizations in foreign policy.

Most Europeans view relations with the United States as a waiting game, Smith said. Come 2008, they hope a more willing partner will be elected.

Janis Emmanouilidis, who studies German politics at Munich's Center for Applied Policy Research, said Merkel has made it clear that she doesn't believe Europe can wait that long for better relations.

To be sure, Europe and the United States share some core values: free-markets and democracy. But a recent poll for German television found that among foreign leaders, Bush, at 25 percent, was about half as popular as Chirac (55 percent) or Putin (47 percent). Still, Germans applaud Merkel's efforts to improve relations.

"Administrations are temporary," Emmanouilidis said. "Germans understand that relationships between nations need to last."

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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