Bush drops into Germany for a friendly goodbye
US President George W Bush is making a low key visit to Berlin on what will most likely be his last trip to Germany in office
Berlin -- The personal warmth between George W Bush and Angela Merkel is evident to all who have seen the US president and German chancellor at their informal meetings.
The Republican president described his Christian Democrat counterpart as "a fine chancellor, whom I'm proud to call a friend," when he passed through months after Merkel took office in November 2005.
The sentiments have not changed for their last intimate get-together on Tuesday at secluded Schloss Meseberg near Berlin. The visit is part of a farewell tour that also takes the outgoing US president to Slovenia, Italy, the Vatican, France and Britain.
For the president, the new chancellor, with her played-down style, represented a refreshing change from the mediagenic Gerhard Schroeder.
Merkel's Social Democrat predecessor had angered Bush for successfully drumming up European sentiment against the Iraq War.
"We share common values and common interests. We want to work together to keep the peace. We want to work together to promote freedom," Bush said with Merkel standing alongside.
Merkel's homely style in welcoming him, in July 2006, to wild boar roasted barbeque-style in the obscure northern German hamlet of Trinwillershagen evidently appealed to the president.
He posed for photographers in open-necked shirt as he cut himself slices from the wild pig, with a smiling Merkel at his side.
The president went further at the Group of Eight St Petersburg summit a few days later, when he gave the reserved chancellor a passing neck-rub in front of rolling Russian television cameras.
Merkel was clearly taken by surprise, but there were no negative noises from the German side afterwards, although some in the US media queried the president's taste.
The same kind of bonhomie prevailed when Merkel became one of relatively few European leaders to be invited to Bush's ranch at Crawford in Texas in November last year.
"In Texas, when you invite somebody to your home, it's an expression of warmth and respect, and that's how I feel about Chancellor Merkel," Bush enthused.
Merkel, who is not known for effusiveness, called the ranch a "wonderful place to be and a wonderful atmosphere."
They are kindred spirits in many ways.
Bush has made his Christian faith a hallmark of his presidency, with White House bible readings and religious services. Merkel is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, and, while less public about her faith, holds to her Christian traditions.
And they have both found their ideological home on the right of the spectrum - advocates of self-help, small government and the family unit as the basis of their politics.
Bush is reported to be intrigued by Merkel's rise from an upbringing in communist East Germany to Christian Democrat chancellor of Europe's economic powerhouse. It contrasts strongly with his own background as scion of a powerful political family.
The friendship persists despite clear differences on major international themes.
Merkel is a staunch advocate of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to counter climate change. Bush had to be nudged towards concessions at the Heiligendamm G8 summit in June last year.
The German chancellor places the United Nations at the centre of her international politics - whether on climate change, halting the loss of biodiversity or resolving international conflicts.
The Bush presidency, by contrast, has bypassed the UN at every crucial point, invading Iraq without a Security Council mandate and convening a climate change forum of major emitters outside the UN.
On another issue close to German hearts, they are also at odds. Germany wants a permanent seat on the Security Council, but Bush is unhelpful.
"Japan should have a seat. Beyond that I've made no commitment," he said in response to a query at Crawford. Merkel was standing at his side.
When taxed on the differences, German officials point rather to shared core beliefs in political and economic freedom.
Germans with a sense of history are keenly aware of the role the US played in establishing modern Germany. The airlift that saved West Berlin and and the Marshall Plan that revived the economy are not forgotten.
Little of substance is expected when the two leaders emerge from the baroque palace, where Bush spends Tuesday night some 70 kilometres north of the Berlin.
Although there will be other meetings - for example at Toyako on Hokkaido Island where the Japanese G8 summit is being held early next month - this is their last informal encounter.
Soon they will go their separate ways: Bush leaves office in January after two full terms. On current form, Merkel will win hers easily in September next year. DPA