- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

PARIS — A new power lineup in the heart of Europe is expected after the forthcoming German elections, with more accent on trans-Atlantic relations and the role of East European countries.

According to French and German assessments, such a dramatic change would reflect disappointment with French President Jacques Chirac’s anti-Americanism and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s political weakness.

The two leaders had considered themselves the pivotal “Franco-German couple” and thought of their nations as the European Union’s economic and political “locomotive.”

But with French voters recently rejecting the proposed EU constitution and Germany’s growing economic problems, both concepts have lost their appeal.

Some German analysts say Mr. Chirac’s strident opposition to the Iraq war has created a dangerous rift across Europe, pushing the new East European union members toward the United States rather than toward Western Europe.

The new orientation is expected to crystallize after Sept. 18 parliamentary elections in Germany, with polls showing that voters favor the conservatives and their leader, Angela Merkel.

Mrs. Merkel was particularly outspoken on a visit to Paris last week during which she established personal — and warm — contact with Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious interior minister considered a rival to Mr. Chirac.

Mrs. Merkel objects to Mr. Chirac’s pet proposal for a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, saying Germany cannot go “over Poland’s head” and urging a more positive approach to smaller EU countries.

She and Mr. Sarkozy oppose the prospect of Turkish membership in the European Union and suggest a form of “special relationship” instead.

Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schroeder are in favor of Turkey’s joining the bloc, although opinion polls across Europe indicate a steadily growing opposition.

French analysts say the European Union needs an “inner circle” of countries that would set the tone for the bloc’s evolution.

In view of the apparent failure of the “Franco-German couple” and Mr. Chirac’s feud with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speculation has centered on a larger bloc consisting of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Mrs. Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany, also is inclined to include Poland in the select grouping. Like many German politicians, she is more concerned about Germany’s relations with Eastern Europe than with France.

Her contacts with Mr. Sarkozy and their joint press conference were seen by some as a “jolt” to the French political scene — and a sign of Mr. Chirac’s decline. His term expires in 2007.

For the time being, the budding campaign in Germany has focused on domestic issues, particularly the falling birthrate. One of Mrs. Merkel’s idea is to compensate new parents with a tax rebate of nearly $10,000.

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