Merkel presses Bush on Mideast and trade

Posted in United States , Europe | 05-Jan-07 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany hold a joint news conference in Washington.

WASHINGTON: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, on a brief White House visit on Thursday evening to confer with President George W. Bush, gained an assurance of American support for an effort to revive peace talks in the Middle East.

But she appeared to have less luck on a new initiative to forge what she called "a future common market" between Europe and the United States.

The president, speaking after a 90-minute session with Merkel, also confirmed that he planned to make a key speech on Iraq policy sometime next week.

Taking questions from reporters, Bush said he had told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq in a two-hour videoconference that he expected, and had been promised, a "full investigation" of the chaotic execution of Saddam Hussein.

He also said he was "in the process of making up my final decision as to what to recommend" on Iraq, adding, "We will want to make sure the mission is clear and specific."

Bush and Merkel also discussed the war in Afghanistan, the instability in Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear program and the problems in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Merkel urged Bush to do more to fight climate change, another priority of the European Union; he repeated earlier assurances that the United States would press for the rapid development of new, less-polluting technologies, rather than sharply cutting emissions.

It was Merkel's third trip to the United States since she took office in November 2005 as the first woman to lead Germany, but it was her first since Germany assumed the six-month rotating chairmanship of the European Union this month.

Merkel will also host the summit meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized countries, to be held in June in Heiligendamm, Germany, the same Baltic resort town where Bush stayed when he visited Merkel's home district en route to the last Group of 8 meeting in Russia.

The twin leadership role gives Germany — which already is Europe's most populous country and largest economy — an even greater voice on favored issues.

One of the more ambitious planks in the German platform, as Merkel told Bush, is to revitalize the so-called quartet for Middle East peace efforts, made up of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

Bush endorsed the idea. "Madame Chancellor had a good idea to convene the quartet, which I agreed to," the president said, noting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would soon be visiting the Middle East, partly to press peace efforts.

Europeans have long complained that the United States, considered central to any Middle East peace effort, has become so preoccupied with Iraq as to largely ignore that vexing issue.

Berlin hopes to call a meeting of the quartet as soon as possible.

The conservative chancellor has said she wants to make closer relations with the United States a center point of her presidency of the European Union, completing a reversal following the severe strains over the Iraq war that soured the relationship earlier.

In her short time in office, Merkel appears to have developed a comfortable relationship with Bush. Indeed, the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, likened it to those Bush has had with two of his closest allies, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and the former Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.

Merkel had been expected to try to enlist Bush's support in putting together a sweeping initiative to harmonize American and European legislation to increase trade and investment.

"Our economic systems are based on the same values," she told The Financial Times this week. "We must watch out that we do not drift apart, but instead come closer together."

Some Germans favor a trans-Atlantic free-trade area as a sort of NATO for the economy, a counterweight to China's growing economic might and perhaps a backstop should the Doha Round of global trade liberalization talks fail.

But after her talk with Bush, Merkel said that while both sides wanted to cooperate on Doha, "the window of opportunity we have on that is closing fast."

And she said that while a working group was being set up to explore what she called a future common market, "it's certainly an uphill battle."

Bush, for his part, did not mention the idea of a common market but spoke far more positively of the global trade talks. "We're committed to the Doha Round," he said. The president said that he and Merkel had had a "good, frank discussion" — usually diplomatic language for disagreement — and that while it would be difficult, "I believe we can get a deal done" on Doha.

The president's authority to negotiate trade agreements without detailed Congressional involvement expires this year, making complex trade accords less likely.

C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, called the approach the chancellor set out in The Financial Times interview "a very, very modest version" of earlier attempts to forge a trans-Atlantic free-trade area.

But because of its modesty, he said, it might stand some chance of gaining support even in a Congress now led by sometimes-protectionist Democrats.