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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
New era looms for US and Germany
By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

US President George W Bush is in Germany for his first visit since Chancellor Angela Merkel took office last autumn.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (l) and President Bush in January
The two leaders have met before in Washington
The US president may find his trip slightly overshadowed by the fact that Germans are still getting over the World Cup and the news that Juergen Klinsmann has stepped down as coach of the national football team.

But this visit is, nevertheless, highly significant.

The fact that President Bush has been invited to meet Mrs Merkel in her parliamentary constituency around the coastal town of Stralsund in east Germany, is being seen as a sign of the close personal relationship between the two leaders.

Mrs Merkel has already travelled to Washington twice this year to meet the US president.

New understanding

Mr Bush appears to be fascinated by Chancellor Merkel's background - how she grew up in the former communist east Germany, and how she entered politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For President Bush, Angela Merkel seems to embody his much-vaunted views on freedom and democracy.

The US is the most important partner for Germany, apart from the EU
Karsten Voigt, Coordinator for German-American Co-operation
In a recent interview, Chancellor Merkel said she hoped President Bush would come away with a view on how German reunification, which took place while his father was president, affected people in the former communist east.

"I believe this can help complete the picture of Germany," Mrs Merkel said.

"President Bush's visit to Chancellor Merkel's constituency has symbolic value," said Ulrike Guerot, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

"George Bush wants to show that Germany matters, that the German presidency of the EU next year is important. Chancellor Merkel has improved the style, rhetoric and channels of communication between Berlin and Washington."

Closer ties

All this is in sharp contrast to President Bush's strained relations with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Mr Schroeder's outspoken opposition to the Iraq war irritated the Bush administration, and officials on both sides of the Atlantic had to work hard to repair the deep rifts.

Policemen in the town of Straslund
Security has been tightened in the town of Stralsund ahead of the visit
Now diplomats probably will be breathing a sigh of relief that at least Chancellor Merkel has good personal chemistry with Mr Bush.

She will have a two-hour meeting with the president in the town hall at Stralsund.

The talks are expected to focus on the Middle East, the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme, North Korea's missile tests, energy security and the Balkans.

"The US is the most important partner for Germany, apart from the EU," said Karsten Voigt, the German-American co-ordinator at the German foreign ministry.

"We need to co-operate with America - for example, on Afghanistan, and the Balkans.

"This meeting is taking place just before the G8 summit in St Petersburg and the issues which will be discussed then will be on our agenda here in Germany."

On the nuclear stand-off with Iran, recently there has been close co-operation between Germany and the US, and some analysts say Chancellor Merkel has restored German diplomacy to balancing relations between the US, France and Russia.

But while Chancellor Merkel may have close personal ties with Mr Bush, she has shown in the past her ability to raise controversial issues.

It is likely that Chancellor Merkel will repeat her calls for the US to shut down the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

Chancellor Merkel is, however, constrained by her Social Democrat partners in the coalition government, and some SPD politicians have urged her to ask President Bush to give a specific date as to when the US will close Guantanamo Bay.

'Unwelcome'

Anti-Bush banner
Not everyone is keen on closer German ties with the US
President Bush's visit will be marked by what has now become a usual event during these trips - anti-US demonstrations.

Thousands of left-wing activists and other Germans are expected to take part in protests in Stralsund.

More than 12,000 police officers are on duty during the trip and local residents have expressed their anger because of the massive security operation.

President Bush will go on a walkabout in the historic town-centre of Stralsund on Thursday and he will also be guest of honour at a wild-boar barbecue in the village of Trinwillershagen, where he will meet local politicians and business leaders.

It is a far cry from the formal meetings that used to take place between Mr Schroeder and President Bush, when differences over the Iraq war surfaced.

But even now, amid all the camaraderie between Chancellor Merkel and President Bush, the German delegation may still steer clear of mentioning the war, and instead try to chat about football.


SEE ALSO
Iran tops Merkel's agenda in US
03 May 06 |  Europe
Merkel's US trip heralds new start
12 Jan 06 |  Americas

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