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Germany At Pains to Mollify Washington

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Germany at pains to mollify Washington

Transatlantic allies rebuild relationship after Hitler jibe

John Hooper in Berlin

Monday November 11, 2002

The Guardian

One the most acrimonious transatlantic rifts of the past 50 years was close to being healed yesterday after a highly successful visit to Washington by Germany's new defence minister, Peter Struck.

The start of a rapprochement between the US and Germany sent a clear signal that Berlin would not get in the way of any American-led attack on Iraq by restricting the Pentagon's access to its bases on German soil. It also offered the prospect of a boost to Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union.

But Mr Struck insisted yesterday that Germany had not shifted its position on the issue at the root of the dispute - Berlin's opposition to US policy on Iraq. And, in an interview with the Sunday newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, he stressed that Germany was not about to give in to demands that it spend more on defence.

"We cannot comply with [that] request," he was quoted as saying. "An increase in the defence budget is not possible for us at the moment."

Gerhard Schröder's centre-left government is wrestling with a budget deficit it admits will breach the limit demanded by the EU. Mr Struck has ordered a review of Germany's defence purchases and said that some equipment orders might be scaled back.

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, signalled a thaw late on Friday after talks with Mr Struck when he told a news conference that relations with Germany were "unpoisoned". He had declared them "poisoned" after Mr Schröder won re-election in September with a campaign in which one of his ministers was quoted as comparing President Bush's tactics on Iraq to those of Adolf Hitler.

Mr Bush pointedly omitted to congratulate the chancellor on his victory and was said to have refused to take any calls from him until Friday when the two leaders spoke for about 10 minutes shortly before the meeting between their defence ministers.

The US administration put out a distinctly tepid statement. It noted merely that "the president is interested in getting down to the business of moving forward on issues of common interest with Germany".

US sources said that foremost among those issues was unfettered access to America's bases in Germany in the event of war in the Middle East. It is inconceivable that relations could have been improved without a firm commitment from Berlin on this point.

But a report in yesterday's Bild am Sonntag said the conversation between Mr Bush and Mr Schröder had been dominated by Turkey. Ankara wants the EU to set a date at the Copenhagen summit next month for the start of its accession talks. Backing Turkey's bid for membership was among three items said to be on a "shopping list" of demands presented to Berlin by the US administration as a condition for improved ties.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported last month that Washington also expected the Germans to back Mr Bush at the forthcoming Nato summit in Prague and support the US proposal for a Nato rapid response force. A further condition was that Germany should not oppose support by the alliance for a US effort to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Berlin has made other moves towards restoring what had been one of the closest of transatlantic relationships. Last Wednesday, the cabinet extended for 12 months the mandate of 3,900 German troops involved in the US-led "war on terror". They include special forces in Afghanistan, ships stationed off the Horn of Africa and a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons detection unit based in Kuwait.

Germany and the Netherlands are expected to take command of the Isaf international peacekeeping force in Kabul early next year. Germany is to send up to 1,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan when it takes joint command of the force, the defence ministry in Berlin has said.

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