European political leaders tried their best Monday to draw something positive from Germany's inconclusive general election amid fears of stagnation in Europe's largest economy and further division in the EU.
The EU is anxious about the uncertainty in its biggest member
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who heads a centre-left government, and conservative challenger Angela Merkel both claimed victory after Sunday's vote although neither was able to secure a clear mandate with their preferred coalition partners.
The prospect of protracted political wrangling in Germany dashed hopes that a Merkel victory would provide fresh impetus to the German economy, while Schröder's last-minute comeback to draw even in the election race boosted those on the European left.
In France, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- a conservative who hopes to succeed Jacques Chirac as president in 2007 elections on a platform of reform similar to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) -- congratulated her on what he described as a victory for their shared values.
"I want to give you my congratulations for this electoral victory as well as my warmest wishes for success in what is to come. I strongly hope that you are able to gather a solid coalition around you and the CDU," he said in a message to Merkel.
Sarkozy, leader of France's ruling conservative UMP party, said the very slight lead given to the CDU "confirms that the ideas and values we share are right."
But Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, a close ally of Chirac's, had a different spin, saying "the German voters have responded in a way that will certainly not allow the implementation of a totally (economically) liberal model."
French newspapers looked on with trepidation on the situation next door. One newspaper, Aujourd'hui, asked whether Germany was "ungovernable?" "Paralysis" was how the left-wing Liberation newspaper described the situation of their neighbors, saying: "The Europe which comes out of it is even more uncertain."
Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
But taking a different view, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero cheered what he called a "failure" for the German right and hoped the next government in Berlin would be a good one for Europe.
"The right has ended up well below the expectations it had. It has failed," said Zapatero.
In Britain, Downing Street took a cautious line. "It is wait and see time," Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman told reporters. But analysts said the outcome would disappoint Blair, who had been expecting a Merkel win to provide an important boost to his plans for European economic reform midway through Britain's six-month European Union presidency.
"If (Merkel's) Christian Democrats had been returned, there would have been opportunities to develop a relationship in Washington and to move forward a more liberal agenda within the European Union," said political scientist Wyn Grant of Warwick University.
Concern in Brussels
The razor-edge election handed more bad news to an already crisis-hit EU, since it left its largest member in disarray at a time of turmoil within the bloc. Reflecting that concern, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso called on German leaders to act quickly to avert a political limbo.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, right, with German chancellor Gerhard Schröder
"With all respect for the internal sensitivities of (Germany) I urge the German leaders to find as soon as possible a stable solution for Germany," he said. "Without a dynamic Germany, Europe cannot recover."
Yves Meny, head of the European Institute in Florence, said: "Whatever the scenario, the government will be forced to compromise given its fragility. Politically speaking, Europe is in the doldrums and these elections don't help."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed the result as a success for Schröder and a blow to those, such as Merkel, who oppose Turkey's bid to join the 25-nation European Union.
"I want to say that Schröder led a campaign which in my opinion succeeded," Erdogan said.
Schröder and his Social Democrats firmly support launching EU accession talks with Turkey as planned next month, while Merkel is against giving Ankara full membership in the bloc.
In Germany, where some 600,000 citizens of Turkish origins cast ballots in Sunday's poll, local Turkish leaders said the message of the narrow election result was a clear boost to Turkey's EU accession hopes.