US meeting with German opposition heralds 'new start'

Wolfgang Schäuble, the senior foreign policy expert in Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU), held talks with Mr Bush for 45 minutes yesterday in an unscheduled meeting.

"I am pleased to have been received by such high-ranking people," Mr Schäuble said. "This shows that the US government is interested in good relations with Germany."

In a swipe at Chancellor Schröder's government, Mr Schäuble said that a future conservative German government would not view European integration and good relations with the US as a contradiction. "It is not a question of building a counterweight to America," he said. "German foreign policy has to find its way back to a traditional balance between good relations with the US and France."

The red-carpet treatment afforded to Mr Schäuble, which included talks with Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, and Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, was the clearest indication to date of US expectations regarding outcome of Germany's general election.

After three years of icy diplomacy following Chancellor Gerhard Schröders' rejection of the US invasion of Iraq, the White House is hoping that US-German relations can be put back on a more stable footing.

Mr Schäuble was dispatched to Washington this week on a scouting mission by Germany's opposition. The CDU has outlined its policy towards the US in an election manifesto which insists that under a conservative administration, Germany will embark on a "new start" in relations with the White House.

However, the strength of German public opposition to the US's continued presence in Iraq prevented Mrs Merkel from going to Washington herself. Several German commentators have said television footage of Mrs Merkel and President Bush smiling and shaking hands would inevitably result in Mrs Merkel being dubbed "Bush's poodle" in the German media.

Mr Schäubel was at pains to insist that, despite the prospect of better relations, no German troops would be dispatched to Iraq under the CDU.

Despite its willingness to please Washington, Mrs Merkel's party has differences with the White House over Turkey's proposed membership of the European Union. The Bush administration is keen to see Turkey becomea fully fledged member. However, the CDU is adamant that Ankara be given only "privileged partnership" status. Her party has made opposition to Turkey's membership one of the main issues in its election manifesto.

German commentators have also rejected suggestions that a Merkel-led government would alter Germany's stance towards its main European ally, France, in favour of an improved relationship with the US.

"One has to remember that Mrs Merkel's conservatives regard themselves as the architects of the Franco-German alliance. There is no question of the party giving this up," a spokeswoman for Germany's Konrad Adenauer conservative think-tank told The Independent.

White House officials were reluctant yesterday to concede that Mr Bush's meeting with Mr Schäuble heralded the start of a new German-US alliance.

A spokesman said: "We are moving forward since our difficulties of the past and will continue to do so regardless of who wins the German elections."

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