The European Union was looking on anxiously on Sunday, as Germans go to the polls, concerned about the impact that a chancellor Angela Merkel might have with the bloc deep in crisis.
EU chief Barroso: What will a change in Berlin mean to the EU?
Utmost in the minds of Germany's EU partners, analysts say, is whether the 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 future in the bloc.
But the Union, in disarray over its draft constitution and long-term budget, has not figured high on the German campaign agenda, and member states are puzzling over what path the largest contributor to the EU budget will take.
"Europe does not take precedence in Merkel's campaign; or in the campaign of others, by the way," said Ulrike Guerot, at the German Marshall Fund. "Europe is not en vogue in Germany."
Very few answers can be found in the program of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Merkel has been quiet about her EU aims -- some say to avoid uncertain ground. The party manifesto promises good news for Brussels by calling for a strict interpretation of the rules underpinning the euro single currency, which Germany has broken, but bad news by calling for "a thrifty EU budget."
Under current Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, unemployment has risen to record postwar highs, domestic demand is moribund, and Germany could face a massive structural deficit of 60 billion euros ($75 billion) in 2007.
"Greater Europe has a large stake in seeing a stronger and competitive German economic motor to help energize a European-wide market," said Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Shift of European balance?
Relations between Chancellor Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac have been strong
Politically the question is: what new balance will be established in Germany's key relationships with Britain and France? Berlin and Paris have traditionally been the EU's driving force, but their shared economic woes, vehement opposition to the Iraq war, and France's rejection of the EU's proposed constitution have undermined that influence.
"Relations with France should remain central to Germany's European policy," Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, 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.
The CDU's manifesto confirms a Merkel government would take an inclusive approach -- unless she finds herself forced into forging a broad coalition with Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD), in which case foreign policy could be watered down. "We will revive Franco-German cooperation in such a way that will justify the trust of other EU partners, incorporate their interests, and avoid patronizing and dominating gestures," it reads.
According to Guerot, Merkel cannot completely reconcile French and British interests but she could act as mediator; much needed after their divisive row over the Union's 2007-2013 budget. "What she can do... is to bridge between France and the UK, who are the two most important players in European policies, as Germany pretty much fell away from that list over the past few years."
Merkel: no EU future for Turkey
Merkel opposes Turkey joining the EU
The clearest commitment in the CDU's short section on EU policy is its stance on Turkey, which is due to begin accession talks on Oct. 3. "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 accession," it says.
But Merkel has said she would respect EU commitments to Ankara. "If Germany forced the EU to renege on its promise to negotiate with Turkey, the impact on both the reform process and on Germany's relations with key allies like the UK and the US, would very damaging," warned Grant.
One EU diplomat doubts a Merkel government would do that. "Why would Turkey and membership talks be a problem for Angela Merkel? She could just blame it all on Schröder," he said.