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Opinion: A new "New Europe" is emerging

Germans, Brits and Turks are rethinking their old roles.

German Chancellor head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel attends a news conference at the CDU party headquarters in Berlin, May 10, 2010. Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday her cabinet aimed to push through quickly Germany's part of a $1 trillion emergency rescue package to stabilize the euro despite suffering a crushing state election defeat on Sunday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

NEW YORK — As leaders of European Union states erected a wall of euros to defend the common currency from the Greek debt crisis on Sunday, the head of the EU’s most important economy decided she would go to Moscow instead.

While investors continued to punish Greece for its profilacy, Angela Merkel, the conservative German chancellor, accepted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's invitation to the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stayed home given the gravity of the crisis facing the EU. Merkel appeared far less concerned with the euro’s fall. And the following day, when Merkel’s cabinet dutifully approved the nearly $1 trillion emergency bailout package, they did so entirely without enthusiasm.

That Merkel choose to spend the weekend in Moscow playing Putin’s foil at the anniversary parade speaks to the changes afoot not only in Germany, but also more broadly across Europe.

It can’t have been entirely comfortable for Merkel, representing Germany, to review the legions of Red Army veterans, millions of whom died at the hands of the German invasion decades ago. But Germany, heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and increasingly unwilling to follow Washington’s lead in the wider world, has been putting its own national interests ahead of European unity of late. That is a major milestone in the country’s post-war history.

It’s not just Germany, either. Across the Atlantic, the nations that represented America’s most reliable allies since the end of World War II are changing.

Britain’s election last week remains unresolved, but whether the next government is led by a Tory, Labour or a Liberal Democrat, skepticism of American leadership in the world is rife. The Conservatives, who look most likely to form a government, have railed against Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, for allegedly kow-towing to Washington. Conservatives likely cut a far more independent swath in the coming years.

Turkey, another regional power who relied for decades on close ties with Washington, also has evolved away from that relationship. Beginning with the decision not to allow American troops to launch a northern front against Iraq from Turkish territory in 2003, U.S.-Turkish ties have stagnated, coinciding with Turkey’s increasing frustration with the EU, which it has been trying to join for decades.

The Turkish response has been to seek more fertile ground, improving ties with Middle Eastern nations like Iran and Syria, opening new commercial ventures with Russian and Chinese firms and all but abandoning its once hopeful role as an intermediary between Israel and Arab rivals like Syria. (Israel, of course, has had its own problems with Washington of late, but that’s another story.)

Meanwhile, given what’s going on in the EU, Turkey may be rethinking that cherished goal.

Germany’s “awakening,” as some are putting it, has proven the most surprising to American policymakers and their EU partners, however. This appears to be driven, in part, by a genuine sense among Germans that the burden of guilt associated with the Hitler years is now fading and that Germany needs to make its voice heard on the international stage.