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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
What German poll means for Europe

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

An election win for the Christian Democrats' Angela Merkel would not only change Germany's political landscape, it could radically alter the face of Europe too.

Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroeder
The two party leaders have just a few days of campaigning left

There is something different about this German election campaign. The traditional consensus on Europe between the two main parties has broken down.

So the rest of Europe is watching closely. The outcome will influence Europe's "great debate" about its internal policies. And the ripples will be felt as far away as Ankara, Moscow and Washington.

Since 1990, when East and West Germany were re-united, the two Volksparteien (people's parties) - the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) - have shared a vision of the country as a team player in Europe and a firm ally of the USA.

But now the CDU accuses Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of taking Germany into dangerous new territory, by letting differences over Iraq undermine the bond with Washington and parading a "strategic partnership" linking Germany, France and Russia.

Mr Schroeder hopes for another surprise victory, by relying on his popular stand against the Iraq war and his claim to have made Germany a respected "force for peace".

Policy proposals

Angela Merkel, the pastor's daughter from eastern Germany who is the Christian Democrat's candidate for chancellor, has signalled these changes in German foreign policy priorities if she wins:

  • Mending Germany's damaged ties with Washington, while still not sending German soldiers to Iraq

  • Being more critical of authoritarian trends in President Putin's Russia. Mrs Merkel says her upbringing in communist East Germany taught her the true value of freedom

  • Showing more solidarity with Poland and other new EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland wants German support to counter Russian influence in Europe's eastern borderlands like Ukraine and Belarus

  • Blocking Turkey's hopes of eventual full membership in the EU. Instead Mrs Merkel is pressing the EU to offer Turkey only a "privileged partnership"

  • Downgrading the importance of the Franco-German axis as the motor of EU integration. Angela Merkel rejects France's retreat into economic protectionism and would work more closely with Britain and the smaller EU states

In the EU, the behaviour of Europe's "Big Three" - Germany, France and Britain - is often decisive. A major re-alignment may lie ahead.

France's President Chirac is suffering from ill-health and has less than two years left in office.

His possible successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to radically shake up Europe's "social model" and shares much of Mrs Merkel's reforming vision.

Economic doldrums

Angela Merkel has hinted that she supports some of Tony Blair's controversial ideas for a more flexible, pragmatic EU, including a phasing out of Europe's huge budget for farm subsidies.

Christian Democrat (CDU) leader Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel hopes to become Germany's first female chancellor

The EU now appears largely paralysed by the breakdown of the plan for a European constitution and the Franco-German blockade of sweeping economic reforms, like the liberalising of EU-wide trade in services.

But a three-way understanding among Berlin, Paris and London would make solutions to both problems more likely.

Could it also lift the 12-nation eurozone out of the economic doldrums?

German business leaders and Europe's stock markets certainly hope for a Merkel victory.

She has tried not to scare voters off by spelling out painful remedies for Germany's economic ills and record unemployment levels. But she promises a return to sound finances and more business-friendly policies.

Gerhard Schroeder's party still lags far behind in opinion polls, yet most voters say they prefer his foreign policy to that of the CDU.

Mrs Merkel is banking on dissatisfaction with the country's economic slide to help her get Mr Schroeder's job. But if she does, the diplomatic map of Europe will look quite different.

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