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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 08:28 GMT
Merkel's US trip heralds new start
By Jonathan Beale
BBC state department correspondent

There will be a warm welcome for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington - a stark contrast to Gerhard Schroeder's visit to the White House last June.

Angela Merkel
Washington is excited about Angela Merkel's visit
That was a low key affair for a little valued relationship.

Mr Schroeder, who had used his attacks on President George W Bush to bolster his flagging support back home, was allowed a brief photo opportunity with the president in the White House.

He had spent hours in the air for a few minutes in front of the cameras. Not even a glimpse of a red carpet.

This time Washington is actually excited about the new German chancellor's visit.

A straight talker

Angela Merkel came to power late last year promising to revitalise her country's tattered relations with the US - and the Bush administration took note.

She's an East German who grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain - but still embraced so many of the values that America loves
She may be representing "old Europe" but she is opening a new chapter in the two countries' ties.

Germany's ambassador to Washington, Wolfgang Ischinger, told me he has been unable to meet the demand for dinner with the new German chancellor at the embassy on Thursday night - such is her popularity on Capitol hill.

It's not just because she is not Schroeder. Her past resonates here with this administration.

She is an East German who grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, but still embraced so many of the values that America loves - freedom and the free market.

President Bush and former Chancellor Schroeder
There was little love lost between the US president and Mr Schroeder
Her style is also appreciated. She is a straight talker - but not confrontational.

She is prepared to raise disagreements with Washington - but will always do so in the context that Germany values its friendship with America.

Do not expect any lectures on Iraq. Do expect strong support for the US in its efforts to confront Iran over its nuclear programme.

Differences remain

The White House is also eager to repair transatlantic relations.

Hence President Bush's decision to visit Europe at the start of his second term last year.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Berlin soon after Mrs Merkel's appointment. But that visit also highlighted potential strains: America's treatment of terrorist suspects.

It is the one issue that that could upset the honeymoon couple.

Guantanamo Bay
The US treatment of terror suspects could be a fly in the ointment
With one eye on her domestic audience, Mrs Merkel gave an interview to Der Spiegel magazine before leaving for Washington.

When asked about the US treatment of detainees she said: "An institution like Guantanamo Bay should not exist in the longer term... Different ways and means must be found for dealing with these prisoners."

It is the issue that has already strained Europe and the US - and will continue to do so.

The German ambassador to Washington told me transatlantic relations would be significantly eased if in the medium or long term "other ways" could be found to deal with detainees.

And no, renditions and CIA secret prisons are not the answer.

But note that Mrs Merkel talked about resolving this issue "in the longer term". Washington will welcome the breathing space.




SEE ALSO:
US rejects Guantanamo criticism
10 Jan 06 |  Americas
Angela Merkel's 'EU triumph'
17 Dec 05 |  Europe
Rice and Merkel discuss CIA row
06 Dec 05 |  Europe



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