AFP: US President George W. Bush was to pressure Chancellor Angela Merkel to cut Germany's business ties with Iran in talks Wednesday as he put the Iran nuclear dispute at the heart of his farewell European tour, aides said.
MESEBERG, Germany (AFP) — US President George W. Bush was to pressure Chancellor Angela Merkel to cut Germany's business ties with Iran in talks Wednesday as he put the Iran nuclear dispute at the heart of his farewell European tour, aides said.
Bush, arriving from a US-EU summit in Slovenia, dined with Merkel on Tuesday and held a working breakfast Wednesday before a formal meeting, a press conference and a lunch at a palace near Berlin.
Other issues expected to come up included Afghanistan, peace efforts in the Middle East, moves to cut transatlantic trade barriers, the July summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers in Japan and climate change.
Germany, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China are spearheading efforts to press Iran to halt uranium enrichment that can be used to make the material for a bomb.
The UN Security Council has slapped three sets of sanctions on the Islamic Republic — which insists its nuclear drive is peaceful — but despite a cut-back in trade in recent years Germany has lucrative business ties there.
Europe's biggest economy exported 3.6 billion euros (5.6 billion dollars) worth of goods to Iran in 2007 — down almost a fifth from 2005 — and Iranian banks have branches throughout Europe including in Germany.
The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana has indicated he may travel to Iran on Sunday where to deliver a "refreshed" package of diplomatic and economic incentives to convince Tehran to freeze uranium enrichment.
Merkel and Bush, who was to head to Italy later on Wednesday on a tour also taking in the Vatican, France, England, and Northern Ireland and ending on Monday, will have no shortage of other topics to discuss.
White House aides said Bush would ask Merkel for more help with Afghanistan, where Berlin has around 3,500 troops in the relatively peaceful north, while German officials said the chancellor would emphasize climate change in the meeting at Meseberg Palace.
Last year Merkel was credited with winning concessions from Bush on climate change at a G8 summit in Germany — albeit non-binding pledges on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on which the US president has been accused of reneging.
German-US relations have improved since Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schroeder opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But Bush remains disliked in much of western Europe and many are looking ahead to when a new president moves into the White House in January.
In 2006, Bush and Merkel bonded over pickled herring and barbecued boar on Germany's Baltic coast and Merkel has walked a tightrope between rebuilding ties to Washington and keeping the president at arm's length.
This time Merkel, Bush and their spouses dined on asparagus and schnitzel with strawberries for dessert, and strolled together in the gardens of Meseberg Palace, an 18th-century Baroque abode turned government guest house.
"We will have a whole range of issues to discuss so I do not think we will have to
spend too much time talking about his leaving office," Merkel told reporters after welcoming the president.
"But it is his last European tour and then a new era will begin."
A leading figure in Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party said Bush would not be missed.
"During his first term we had the serious dispute in the run-up to the Iraq war and the disaster after the war in Iraq caused serous damage to the image of the United States, and not just in Germany," the foreign policy spokesman for the CDU's parliamentary group, Eckart von Klaeden, told ARD public television.
Unlike previous visits to Germany, there were no protests this time with Bush critics apparently preferring to enjoy the sunny weather and to look ahead to a fresh start with a Barrack Obama or John McCain presidency.
Bush meanwhile was asked last night what he liked best about his host country.
"The people," he answered. "Followed by the countryside."
He prepared for Wednesday's packed agenda with a 30-minute mountain bike ride in the countryside around Meseberg, German television reported.