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The World from Berlin: Will Merkel Succeed in Rebuilding the 'Atlantic Bridge'?

During her brief visit to Washington, German Chanceller Angela Merkel will seek to deepen economic ties between the United States and European Union and to jumpstart the Middle East peace process. But with a lame duck president and a Congress hungry for revenge, her prospects may be slim.

When Angela Merkel meets with United States president George W. Bush in Washington on Thursday evening, the talk will all be big picture: The dream of a trans-Atlantic free trade initiative and plans to get the dangerously languishing Mideast peace process back on track.

The trip comes just three days after Merkel assumed the helm of the G8 and the European Union presidency -- a double role that gives her considerable clout for the next six months in relationship-building.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Fresh wind for trans-Atlantic relations?
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Fresh wind for trans-Atlantic relations?

On the strength of her position, Merkel wants to push for closer integration of the world's two biggest economies -- possibly eventually including a free trade zone, or at least something that in many respects looks like one. The US and the EU share -- economically at least -- more common interests than differences, and merging the economies could help buffer both sides of the Atlantic from the negative effects of globalization. By creating joint standards, innovations and policies, it would also help to level the playing field with low-wage, newly industrialized nations like China and India.

Against a backdrop of Europe's growing importance as a mediator in the Middle East -- a profile that has increased as a result of Washington's trouble in Iraq and diminished status as a proponent of basic human rights -- Merkel will push for concrete steps to be taken in establishing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The discussion precedes the chancellor's own planned trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in February.

With a lame-duck president and a new congressional majority that may be unwilling to take any steps to improve Bush's image, few in the German media on Thursday believe Merkel has good prospects, but most commentators praise the substance of her agenda.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Merkel's plan is infectious. The chancellor wants Europe and the US to work more closely together economically. By doing so, a new era could begin in a relationship that has recently been difficult. The 'Atlantic Bridge' would fill in the holes in the relationship that were ripped open over America's Iraq policies. And both sides could very quickly demonstrate that they accept the challenge from Asia and that they will work together to combat the aspects of globalization that threaten Western prosperity and values. And the prospects for a new partnership are better than they have been in a long time.

"Now the only European leader who can add weight to the trans-Atlantic initiative is taking over the EU presidency. Merkel leads a large EU member state. Unlike Chirac and Blair, she will stay in power for a while. Plus, she wasn't around at the time of the falling-out over Iraq. Bush urgently needs a success story in foreign politics. To get that, he will have to approach the Europeans.

"It is common interests that make the Europeans and the Americans natural partners. An economic alliance would enable them to limit the risks of globlization in their high-wage countries. If they had unified standards for technology, they could implement them throughout the world -- and Western companies could preserve a playing field that might otherwise be dominated by cheaper Asian producers. Both the EU and the US share the need to put a stop to the theft of intellectual property and plagiarism that the term 'made in Asia' often entails.

"Together, they (the EU and US) could combat the worst forms of exploitation in China and India. Through organizations like the UN or the WTO, they could promote free trade unions and establish labor standards. That would have the effect of rapidly reducing the gap in wages between West and East."

The business daily Handelsblatt likes the idea of an integrated trans-Atlantic market:

"The old debate about a closer cooperation, a free trade area or even a single market between the world's two biggest democratic economic areas is looking increasing attractive. That's not just because the convinced trans-Atlanticist Angela Merkel is promoting it. The main reason is that (closer cooperation) is no longer seen as a luxury which the EU and the US can do without. Earlier attempts often failed because of a lack of interest on the part of the US. (...)

"The rapid rise of industry in China and India has forced a change in thinking. (...) Even the US has lost faith in the belief that it is all-powerful. Now, motivation is being driven by the fear of becoming one of globalization's losers. And that is fueling the desire of Americans and Europeans to draw closer together. They are now painstakingly looking at areas where a new dynamism can be infused into economic relations. ... Of course, there are areas -- agriculture, for example -- where it would be next to impossible to lift protectionism ... and perhaps the initiative will no longer sound as ambitious as earlier talk of a 'Tafta' free-trade zone. But the current plan has a decisive advantage: It might actually happen."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"On this side of the Atlantic many -- probably even the majority -- would place a big question mark after the chancellor's remark that 'Americans and Europeans share the same values'. Indeed, it's almost an act of courage to promote the idea of a partnership with America at the moment -- even if it is just an economic one. The idea just isn't popular.

"Still, Merkel wants to make ties with the United States a focal point of her EU presidency because she refuses to allow America and Europe to drift further apart. Differences aside, nobody who cares about the security and prosperity of the West in today's instable world would want that. A deregulated single market would be beneficial to the economies on both sides of the Atlantic -- and it would bring them politically closer together, too.

"It is also unclear whether Merkel will find competent partners in Washington who are willing to invest political capital in her project. After all, the balance of power has shifted considerably: Even though Bush has remained president, the Democratic majority in Congress will want to set its own agenda, which may also include acts of revenge for all they had to tolerate under the Republicans. All of Merkel's efforts will prove futile if the Democrats choose to ignore appeals to be non-partisan. Either way, it must be clear to Bush that he should take his German counterpart's priorities very seriously -- they might even help him."

The Financial Times Deutschland emphasizes Merkel's desire to get the Mideast peace process back on track under her EU/G8 presidency, bit it also warns that Bush's status as a lame duck will make it extremely difficult to push anything through:

"For Merkel, the challenge is to persuade the US president to do what he's hardly able to do: Put an end to six years of political reserve on the issue and engage actively in the construction of lasting peace in the Middle East.

"In concrete terms, Berlin wants a change in Washington policy in two areas: First, it wants Bush to open a dialogue with Damascus. The German government sees Syria as a key player in the Mideast without whom peace will not be achievable. Officially, however, the US considers the Syrian government to be a 'rogue state.' Second, Germany has been seeking to reactivate the Mideast quartet, which includes the EU, UN, Russia and US, in its efforts to find a solution for the conflict."

-- Khue Pham, 2 p.m. CET

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