Notebook

June 18, 2013 6:57 pm

Obama’s chance to rekindle an affair

The US president’s Berlin speech will need substance as well as symbolism, says Quentin Peel
US Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, makes a speech in front of the Victory Column in Berlin on July 24, 2008©AFP

Five years ago, when Barack Obama last visited Berlin, he wanted to make a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. No doubt he was after the best television pictures to boost his campaign for the US presidency. But he was thwarted by Angela Merkel, the cautious German chancellor. She didn’t want to offend President George W Bush, and decided the venue should be reserved for heads of state or government.

So Mr Obama had to make his speech down the road at the Victory Column – a rather undiplomatic reminder of Prussian military victories over some of its European neighbours. Still, he got the last laugh: 250,000 adoring young Berliners turned out. It felt like a pop festival – and the Bush regime was the villain of the piece.

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Now the president is coming back on a state visit, and this time he’s got the Brandenburg Gate. But only 4,500 guests have been invited, which is all the US and German security men will allow into the square in front of the American embassy.

It will have to be a very good speech to match the excitement of 2008. Last time Europe was in the grip of Obamamania. Opinion polls said about 88 per cent of German voters supported him – although they didn’t have a vote. When Mr Obama said, “this is the moment we must come together to save this planet”, they adored it.

It’s still a great time to be in Berlin, although the president may not get to see much of it. The city is buzzing, the sun is shining and the buses, trams and underground trains are crammed with young tourists, drawn by the magnet of all-night clubbing and cheap booze. Cyclists throng the pavements, threatening pedestrian life and limb.

It is scruffy, in-your-face and all distinctly un-German. Roadworks and building sites litter a city under permanent reconstruction. The foundation stone has just been laid for a vast new building to recreate the old Berliner Schloss – the Prussian royal palace – on Unter den Linden. After years of furious debate, it has been decided that it will be baroque on the outside and modern on the inside – a postmodern compromise of which even Prince Charles might approve. But it may well not be finished for years, if the delays on Berlin’s international airport are anything to go by.

Berliners still love Mr Obama. But he’ll have to find a new speech that has some substance, as well as symbolism. He can hardly use Ronald Reagan’s line from 1987: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.” The Wall is long gone; so is Mr Gorbachev.

There is also a palpable feeling of disappointment with the Obama presidency, particularly in a country that expected so much of him. He hasn’t closed down Guantánamo. He uses armed drones to attack civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He hasn’t really pushed a climate change agenda, opting instead for fracking. Now, he is said to have sanctioned lots of snooping.

In a city with a fierce streak of pacifism in its postwar culture – you could avoid conscription if you studied in West Berlin in the cold war years – and a country that is passionate about data protection, such activities don’t go down well.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the splendidly named justice minister and a pillar of the liberal Free Democrats, wants a presidential explanation of the surveillance. Mind, she says she does not use any of the internet sites affected or online banking. She does not trust any of them.

Ms Merkel will mention the matter when she meets the president in her gleaming glass-and-concrete offices opposite the Reichstag. But she probably won’t push the point. She is not the sort to make a scene.

They have a lot in common. Both are rather serious, cautious and intellectual. Yet Mr Obama’s staff make no secret of his frustration with German stubbornness, especially when it comes to encouraging more economic growth in the eurozone. On Syria, Ms Merkel is adamant she won’t supply arms to the opposition.

But more unites them than divides. They will have a lunch without any advisers – “under four eyes”, as they say in German. Presumably they will speak English. The president’s German is thought to be on a par with John F. Kennedy’s: he had to write out “Ich bin ein Berliner” phonetically, to be sure he said it right, when he uttered that immortal phrase 50 years ago from the balcony of Schöneberg town hall. He wasn’t allowed near the Brandenburg Gate. It was on the wrong side of the Wall.

quentin.peel@ft.com

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