Europe weighs heavily on Angela Merkel

European expectations weigh heavily on Angela Merkel as she begins her job as Germany's chancellor. Will she maintain privileged relations with France? How much will she cozy up to Washington? Where does she stand on EU reforms? Merkel’s first round of official trips this week - to Paris, Brussels and London - is eagerly awaited for clues to policy change. Analysts do not expect an overhaul, as Merkel's hands are tied by an unwieldy power-sharing coalition with outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats.

"We are talking essentially about a continuation of policies, rather than radical change," said John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Center, a think tank based in Brussels, Belgium.The Irish Times, meanwhile, found reasons for optimism.

"The rest of Europe is watching for something new and positive to happen in Germany," the newspaper wrote last week. "Blaming opponents for political failures will not work because those opponents are now sitting across the cabinet table."

Schroeder traditionally lined up with French President Jacques Chirac against British Prime Minister Tony Blair, opposing Britain's hefty EU budget rebate and U.S. plans to invade Iraq in the run-up to the war.

EU officials see the conservative Merkel leaning more toward British ideas on economic and budgetary reform. Germany is already the biggest net contributor to the EU, and Merkel - like Schroeder - is unwilling to offer more money as the 25-nation body struggles to come up with a future budget.

Significantly, Merkel's first foreign trip will be to Paris on Wednesday. Analysts say the change of power won't alter the historic French-German engine at the heart of Europe.

However, with Chirac weakened by a series of political setbacks, Germany will have to "grit its teeth and wait for the next president" to be elected in 2007, said Anne-Marie Le Gloannec of the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research.

Chirac's center-right government has been battered by rioting in impoverished suburbs and voters' rejection of the proposed EU constitution in May.

"You can't ignore France, but at the same time, it is a sick man," Le Gloannec said.

Merkel is widely viewed as more pro-American than Schroeder, who used steadfast opposition to the war in Iraq to win re-election in 2002. However, because of the power-sharing agreement, she had to give the foreign minister's job to Schroeder's former chief of staff, Frank Walter Steinmeier.

Alexander Konovalov, head of the Institute for Strategic Assessment in Moscow, said Merkel - who grew up under communist rule in East Germany - may step up criticism of Russia's war on separatist rebels in Chechnya, reports the AP. I.L.

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