Leading article: A German bridge across the Atlantic

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The Independent Online

It took Angela Merkel the best part of two months to become German Chancellor after her party narrowly won the election. And it has taken her another two months to get round to paying her first visit to Washington as German leader. Left to herself and her atlanticist leanings, Ms Merkel might have gone to the United States sooner. The delay says as much about the constraints Ms Merkel is under at home as it does about her own and her party's politics.

In the event, the timing may have been to Ms Merkel's advantage. Her ratings at home have soared since she took office, thanks to some clear priorities and her sure-footed handling of the coalition. Her contribution to brokering the European Union budget deal in the last weeks of the British presidency elevated her almost instantly into a regional player. For the time being, at least, she looks like a leader in the ascendant.

President Bush, by contrast, gives every appearance of being a leader in decline. His troubles at home multiply by the day. The conflict in Iraq shows little sign of abating. The hopes Mr Bush once nurtured for a compliant bloc of allies in the western hemisphere have been frustrated; Ariel Sharon's illness has put further progress in the Middle East at least temporarily out of reach.

No wonder the White House rolled out the red carpet for Ms Merkel yesterday. Mr Bush's interest in ending the freeze in relations that marked Gerhard Schröder's last three years in office was as great, if not greater, than hers. At their press conference yesterday, the two leaders banished the rift to the past and spoke of inaugurating an important new relationship.

Ms Merkel prudently signalled, however, that she will be no US stooge. She made known in advance that she would not reverse Germany's refusal to sent troops to Iraq and called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. When Condoleezza Rice called on her last month, she elicited a rare admission of US error for the abduction of a German citizen.

For German-US relations to be back on an even keel can only benefit both countries and US-Europe relations as a whole. The bigger question is whether Ms Merkel could soon become the honest broker between Europe and Washington that Mr Blair had aspired to be. The European Union stands in need of such a person; so, too, does the United States.