As soon as Angela Merkel was inaugurated as Chancellor of Germany, she went to Paris - as all her post-war predecessors have done. Unlike them, however, she left France, shortly after the Elyseean hand-kiss, for Belgium, to see EU Commission President Barroso, NATO boss Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and even the Belgian PM. She will be in Britain today to see Tony Blair.
Everyone assumes that Merkel is signalling that the Franco-German-Russian axis -which did so much damage under ex-Chancellor Schroeder and ex-Foreign Minister Fischer - will no longer determine German foreign policy. Merkel, apparently, was also keen to visit Poland as part of her inaugural trip, and was prevented only by Warsaw diary problems. This suggests that she is keen to get the smaller, newer, more vital European nations back on side, after their repeated rebuffs at the hands of the Franco-German-Russian axis.
She is limited in what she can do: hemmed in on all sides by her socialist SPD partners in the grand colaition. Her Foreign Minister is an SPD man called Steinmeier, who worked for Schroeder and will not countenance any major shift away from Germany's pusillanimous foreign policy. This pusaillanimity took hold under the previous government, and most German voters seem to support it, if only because nobody, except for President Bush, has been bold enough to articulate an alternative. But Bush is widely loathed here, mostly on "cretinous trigger-happy cowboy" grounds (exactly the same way Ronald Reagan was perceived during his presidencies), and noone really understands, let alone buys into, his anti-terrorism doctrine.
Under Merkel, Germany's foreign policy focus will free itself of Schroeder's shortsighted French fixation, and she will desist from the anti-American posturing which so disfigured Schroeder and Fischer's tenure. Germany assumes the EU Presidency in 2007, so these small signs of opening up to the outside world are mildly encouraging for proponents of such things as reform of the EU budget, including the ludicrous CAP system, a more Atlanticist foreign policy, and integration of the new, eastern EU countries.
But the important socialists in Merkel's government, such as the rabid anti-capitalist demagogue Müntefering, who is vice-Chancellor, will probably see to it that she can't book any notable successes on these fronts. This is a dispiriting but fair reflection of Germany's election results, which didn't give Merkel the mandate to do more.