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Merkel sets out key priorities in Brussels, Paris

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Germany's new Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday set out key priorities for her coalition government, promising close cooperation with France, efforts to boost ties with the United States and a leading "constructive" role in European Union affairs.

Merkel, who took over on Tuesday as the head of a German "grand coalition" of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD), said her decision to visit Paris and Brussels only 24 hours after taking charge, illustrated her commitment to building a stronger Europe.

"We support European integration...we want to promote it and contribute to it," said Merkel in Brussels.

The chancellor, who also visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, also promised to "further develop" ties with the United States, saying see intended to use NATO as a political alliance for consultations among members.

But she ruled out any change in Berlin's policy on Iraq, saying Germany would continue to train Iraqi security personnel outside the country.

Earlier, speaking to reporters following talks with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris, Merkel said that "an intense relationship between France and Germany is important not only for both countries, but also for Europe".

The meeting with Chirac, held only hours after her election as chancellor, was "not a ritual," she said, adding: "I am here out of profound conviction."

In Brussels, Merkel made clear that Germany intended to take a leading role in E.U. affairs, giving top priority to secure a deal on a new 2007-2013 budget for the 25-nation bloc.

"One major concern that we all share is the need for a proper financial framework in order to make plans," Merkel told reporters at joint press conference with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

The new German leader also said the E.U. should not totally abandon efforts to ratify the bloc's new constitution despite its rejection by French and Dutch voters earlier this year.

Merkel said the E.U.'s priority must be to pursue economic reform to withstand increasing global competition.

Appearing relaxed and in good humour, with a beaming Barroso at her side, Merkel vowed to do her best to find "pragmatic solutions" to E.U. problems.

"What I can do, I will do to ensure Europe can take decisions," Merkel promised.

Barroso, speaking in German - not a language he has previously spoken in public - said he was counting on the new chancellor to press Britain on finding a budgetary compromise at the E.U. summit in Brussels in December.

The British presidency of the E.U. held the "key" to a solution on the budget, Barroso said, adding that Merkel must "help convince" London on the issue.

Taking a more cautious stance, however, Merkel - who will be in London on Thursday - insisted that Britain's almost 5 million annual budgetary rebate was not the only obstacle facing the bloc as it struggled to strike a financial deal.

"The rebate is one part of the whole compendium but we will only be able to find a solution if we take all issues and add them together," she said.

"We need to address the concerns of all - net contributors and beneficiaries," Merkel underlined, adding that clinching a deal on the budget did "not hinge on only one issue."

Securing quick access to E.U. budgetary funds was important for new E.U. states but also for Germany's regional governments, she said.

Germany is the E.U.'s largest paymaster but in recent years has warned that it is unwilling to pay more into the bloc's joint coffers.

The quest for an E.U. deal has run up against Britain's refusal to agree any changes in its annual rebate unless France accepts a radical overhaul of E.U. farm spending.

France, which receives a lion's share of E.U. farm subsidies, opposes any such change.

E.U. governments are hoping to reach agreement on the bloc's 875 billion-euro budget at a summit in December.

But discussions among E.U. foreign ministers have so far failed to produce any breakthrough, prompting increasing concern that an accord on the budget will only be possible next year.

Merkel also said the E.U. "should not give up the idea of an E.U. constitution so quickly".

"We stand by the constitution," she insisted, adding that the current "pause for reflection" on the constitution must be followed by efforts to ensure it enters into force, she said.

However, she admitted that reviving the ratification process for the treaty would have to wait until Germany takes over the E.U. presidency in the second half of 2007.

In talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Merkel said she saw NATO as a "military and political alliance".

Speaking at a joint news conference with Scheffer, Merkel said she was determined to forge closer relations with the U.S. but said NATO should be the prime forum for political discussions between members.

"I believe ties between Germany and the U.S. can be developed further. NATO should be rather the place where members turn first to discuss political issues of common concern," Merkel said.

Individual members should only "be allowed to pursue their individual paths" if agreement could not be reached in NATO, she added.

"This is the only way we can see to it that that NATO continues to be a political alliance," she underlined.

Relations between Berlin and Washington have been strained in recent years following differences over the Iraq war which was opposed by former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Despite vowing closer ties with Washington, Merkel said Berlin did not intend to provide military training inside Iraq but would continue to provide such help in Iraq's neighbouring states. Schroeder followed a similar policy.

Merkel arrived in Brussels from Paris where she met French President Chirac who told reporters he was "very sensitive" to the fact that she had chosen Paris as her first official foreign stop, describing it as a "mark of friendship."

He went on to say that both he and Merkel believe that Europe must have "a truly solid Franco-German axis" to function well.

It remains to be seen, however, if Merkel's relationship with Chirac will be as close as was that of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.

Chirac and Schroeder stood firmly together against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Merkel was accompanied on her trips by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close confidant of former chancellor Schroeder.

Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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