Costas Karamanlis’s scheduled meeting in Berlin this week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel is crucial for the simple reason that it will establish the extent to which Greece wants to play a more integral role within the European system, particularly as the new leader of this major EU partner already shows signs of significant personal influence and decisiveness. Greece is a small, economically weak country that lacks a sense of purpose and, in view of this, it cannot afford to overlook the dynamics taking shape on the European stage due to its own poor evaluation or government inefficiency. Karamanlis failed to cultivate a working relationship with Merkel when the latter was leading Germany’s opposition party, and he must now try to make up for this shortfall. It has to be said that the current European political environment is not all that promising. Following his triumphant re-election last May, British Premier Tony Blair has lost his special influence, both at home and within the EU. France is facing plenty of dilemmas under President Jacques Chirac and PM Dominic de Villepin, who appear to have exhausted their abilities to come up with creative solutions to their country’s problems. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is doing everything possible to secure his re-election and is generally something of a ‘sui generis’ leader with a rather restricted role in the EU. Then, of course, there is the US, which for years now has limited its concern to events in Southeastern Europe due to the overwhelming challenges it faces globally. Consequently, the only leader who is ascending on the European stage is Merkel, who appears to be an exceptionally interesting politician, not only due to the capabilities she demonstrated at the last European Council meeting but also because her political personality has yet to be deciphered. That’s because she is not a product of the Western political system and does not possess the commonplace reflexes of other postwar leaders in Germany and the rest of Western Europe. It is true that Karamanlis spent a significant period of his premiership trying to establish functional relationships and alliances with small EU states – an apparent attempt to create a united front with countries with a similar level of political influence as Greece. It is quite likely that Karamanlis still thinks this way. But he cannot ignore the fact that France and Germany are the driving force of the European Union, and so the aim of any Greek political leadership should be to forge the closest possible ties with at least one of these two countries. An Athens-Berlin axis as such is unlikely to be born, chiefly because it is not an attractive prospect for Merkel – or Karamanlis, for that matter – but an effective cooperation in specific sectors is entirely feasible. One of the main reasons that Karamanlis kept a safe distance from Merkel is that Germany’s Christian Democrat leader explicitly declared herself in favor of a special partnership between the EU and Turkey rather than the latter’s full membership of the bloc, while the Greek government has declared the opposite outlook. But the German chancellor has unreservedly accepted the reforms pushed through by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder – a staunch supporter of Turkey’s EU bid – before she even came to power and so Karamanlis has no reason to worry about Turkish, British or American sensitivities on this level. Greek leaders have a general tendency to regard their meetings with foreign counterparts as a social occasion for exchanging pleasantries, making some declarations or heralding plans for bilateral cooperation which are never followed up. It would be unfortunate if Karamanlis follows this same approach in Berlin next week. Merkel is a powerful new player in the European environment who can raise Greek-German ties to a new level but it is up to the Greek government to take the initiative to make this happen.