The international community looked on anxiously after Sunday's elections in Germany produced no clear winner and raised new political doubts at a time of crisis.
Schröder could still be the man the EU deals with, but concerns remain
Preliminary results showed the conservative opposition Christian Union alliance, led by Angela Merkel, had defeated Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats, but that no clear majority had emerged.
Utmost in the minds of Germany's EU partners is whether the country's new leadership can revive the euro zone's biggest economy, how it will manage ties with France and Britain, and what it will do for Turkey's bid to join the bloc.
But the close result could usher in a period of stasis, particularly if the main parties are forced into a grand coalition.
"An unstable government in Europe's largest state is good news for no one, but at least Europe will be spared the worst of Angela Merkel's neo-liberal policies," said the president of the European Parliament's Socialist group, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen.
Experts predict little change in pro-Europe stance
The situation in Germany comes at a time when the EU is in disarray over the rejection by two founder members of its new constitution. It is also deeply divided over the bloc's long-term budget and is badly in need of political impetus. But experts predict little will change with the formation of a new German government.
"There is going to be little change in economic and other policies," said Daniel Gross at the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels. "Within Europe, Germany wasn't exactly a leader for reform nor a leader in anything and that will just continue," he said.
Bernd Riegert, Deutsche Welle’s EU correspondent in Brussels, said that although the election platforms of the Social Democrats and the conservatives differed on some EU matters, no one in Brussels expects any major changes to Germany’s role in the EU.
"There are some EU bureaucrats and also diplomats from other countries closely watching this election, but the European Commission, as always, holds back any comment on national elections but overall experts predict that a new German government, whichever color it may be, will continue with the pro-EU stance," he said.
"If anything Merkel would be less aggressive in reviewing Germany’s status as a net contributor to the EU budget than Schröder and everyone is quite clear that accession talks with Turkey will get much harder than under Schröder."
Politically, the key question remains: what new balance will be established in Germany's key relationships with Britain and France?
Franco-German axis to remain central
Berlin and Paris have traditionally been the EU's driving force. But their shared economic woes under Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac, their vehement opposition to the Iraq war, and France's rejection of the EU's proposed constitution have undermined that influence.
"There is no alternative anyway to a close Franco-German relationship," said Gros. "It might be less tight, in a certain sense on the surface, as between Schröder and Chirac, but the new German government will be more or less the same just a bit less decisive."
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, believes the Franco-German alliance is a central one for Europe. "Relations with France should remain central to Germany's European policy," whatever government comes to power, he wrote in an essay.
"Without close Franco-German cooperation, the EU can achieve very little. But this alliance should be less exclusive and exclusionary than it has been under Schröder," he added.
A new foreign policy under a Merkel administration?
Merkel has made it clear that a government under her control would attempt to improve Germany's relationships with Britain and the United States, frayed in the run-up to the Iraq war.
As for Turkey, Schröder's government has been a key backer of its long-standing attempts to join the EU and he will still be in office when Ankara's accession talks begin, probably on October 3.
But Turkey's membership hopes would suffer under a Merkel government.
"We want to give strength to the process of democracy, the rule of law and economic growth in Turkey ... by granting privileged partnership status, not by giving the unrealistic prospect of membership," her party's program said.