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As Germans voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday that will have wide repercussions across Europe, GlobalPost takes a look at some of the major issues. Senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of the continent’s most influential country.
A wary Germany faces up to new responsibilities as Europe's pre-eminent power.
Editor's note: As Germans prepare for parliamentary elections later this month, senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of Europe’s most influential country. This is the second in his five-part series.
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Mark Twain Village will cease to exist this year.
The high school in this American town taught its final class in June. A nearby Taco Bell has served its last quesadilla. And behind a wire-mesh fence, the grass is already overgrown.
After 68 years, American forces are pulling out of Heidelberg, a picturesque riverside city that served as headquarters for US Army Europe and played host to 20,000 military personnel and their families.
By 2015, all US facilities here will be handed over to the German authorities, who are planning to construct civilian housing, a business park and sports facilities.
Some drab army apartment blocs are already being painted vivid yellow or orange for students settling in for the new year at Heidelberg's famed university.
Germans have become used to US military downsizing since the Cold War ended a quarter of a century ago. Troop numbers in Europe have fallen from a high of 400,000 to around 70,000, most based in Germany.
The latest restructuring, announced by President Barack Obama in 2012, includes the withdrawal of 10,000 troops. It’s also highlighting a tricky time in US-German relations.
As Germans prepare for national elections on Sept. 22, political debate and media outrage have focused on US whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations that American intelligence agencies ran a vast eavesdropping operation targeting Germany and other allied nations.
Although headlines have railed at the United States for paying too much attention to Europe, the longer-term concern for German policymakers may be that US interest in Europe is fading.
Those troop reductions and Obama's much-hyped foreign policy "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region is putting pressure on European allies to show greater leadership in their neighborhood and take more responsibility for their own defense.
That pressure is particularly strong on Germany.
The euro zone crisis has underscored its position as Europe's dominant economic power, which has pushed the country into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable leadership position.
"It is not our aim to be alone," says Karl Lamers, a prominent lawmaker with Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Party. "Germany is not looking for leadership, but many others are looking to Germany."
Lamers, who has represented Heidelberg in Germany's parliament for almost 20 years, is seeking re-election this month. He's also vice-president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly that brings together lawmakers from both sides of the Atlantic.
Like many German politicians, he insists the country remains committed to working within the European Union as an equal to the other 27 members rather than becoming the bloc's de facto leader.
"We don't like this position, to be the No. 1. We are among a number of strong countries in Europe," he said in an interview during a break from campaigning. "We are part of Europe, part of the EU, part of the euro zone, maybe a very strong part, but a player with all the others."
Nevertheless, it's clear that the euro crisis has changed Germany's position within Europe.
As the EU's paymaster-in-chief, Merkel's government has the last word on the bailouts that have kept the euro zone's peripheral economies afloat. It was Berlin that imposed the austerity designed to get southern economies back in shape by making them more like Germany.
The elections will therefore resonate far beyond Germany's borders.
Protesters in Portugal, Ireland and particularly Greece may have vilified Merkel for prolonging their austerity agony. Back home, polls show most Germans support the way she has managed the euro crisis, keeping the currency bloc together with limited bailouts — provided weaker countries accept tough conditions to knock public finances back into shape.
Less than two weeks before the vote, her CDU has a 15-point poll lead over the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Fears of a euroskeptic backlash over perceptions that hard-earned taxpayers cash is being lavished on spendthrift southerners have not materialized. A new anti-euro protest party called Alternative for Germany is forecast to get less than 3 percent of the vote, too little to win any seats in parliament.
"Germany is still committed to Europe," says Ulrike Guerot, senior policy fellow at the