Bush in Germany The World's Most-Expensive BBQ
US President George W. Bush starts a two-day visit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday in her parliamentary district near the Baltic Sea. The two leaders will talk foreign policy and hope to bond during an expensive country barbecue.
Trinwillershagen in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will be receiving an illustrious guest Wednesday night.
And yet everything is supposed to be different this time. Bush himself is said to have felt the security measures during his last visit -- to Mainz in February 2005 -- were exaggerated. His motorcade drove through deserted streets -- an experience the president apparently doesn't want to make again.
That's why "the population is there too" this visit, as German government officials phrased it yesterday. The Americans expressly desired "being close to German citizens," the government officials said. An audience of a thousand people will attend the welcome speeches on the Hanseatic city Stralsund's Old Market. The members of the audience were selected by the townhalls and district offices of the area. Some citizens also sent in applications. About 50 hand-picked guests have been invited to the barbecue night with Bush and Merkel that will take place in Trinwillershagen, a town 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from Stralsund. According to government officials in Berlin, Harald Ringstorff, the premier of the eastern state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, "will be there on many occasions as well." The member of Germany's Social Democrat Party (SPD) had criticized the preparations for the presidential visit in his state.
After Bush is welcomed by Ringstorff at Rostock airport tonight, he will drive directly to his hotel in the Baltic Sea resort Heiligendamm. The official agenda for the visit begins tomorrow morning in Stralsund. Bush will fly on to St. Petersburg, Russia for the G-8 summit on Friday morning.
The third visit between Bush and Merkel is said to be devoted mainly to developing the personal side of their relationship. Such a meeting will make it easier to talk on the phone later on, according to officials in Berlin. The barbecue night is therefore the unrivalled highlight of the trip -- the plan is for it to be "deliberately relaxed." Just as it's considered an honor to be invited to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, the country outing in Germany's "wild East" is intended as a gesture of friendship. The greater the rusticality, the greater the sense of mutual trust -- that's the statesman's maxim that Bush and Merkel are following. Dinner will consist of a 30 kilogram (66 lbs.) wild boar, as well as grilled deer and duck.
The idea for Bush to visit what used to be part of East Germany was born when the two leaders met for dinner in Washington in January. Bush asked Merkel about life in the former communist state, and she invited him to visit her parliamentary district in Western Pomerania, which includes the pretty town of Stralsund. Bush is looking forward to visiting the "political home" of the German chancellor, officials in Berlin said yesterday. Trinwillershagen was chosen as the barbecue location because Merkel has pleasant memories of another barbecue that was held there during her election campaign.
Trinwillershagen ought to satisfy Bush's new interest for the former East German state. The communist leadership used to invite official visitors to the area's model Agricultural Collective "Red Banner." Talk to Mayor Klaus-Dieter Tahn and you'll hear him praise the former showcase town of socialism. He likes to use the word "wonderful" -- the wonderful kindergarten, the wonderful footpaths, the wonderful sports club. How many things Trinwillershagen has to offer -- a shopping mall, a bank, a hairdresser, two market gardens, three doctors, seven farms. "I hope I'm not leaving anything out," the politically independent mayor says.
He could probably tell a little story about each of the town's inhabitants. About 770 people live in Trinwillershagen, the town that everyone just calls "Trin." The entire county, which includes three other towns, has a population of 1,400. "It's rural here," Tahn says, who would like to show the US president more of his town. But he doesn't know whether that will be possible. "Right now I don't even know when things will start."
"We don't need Bush"
But other locals aren't so keen. None of the town's inhabitants are jumping for joy over the important visitor. "We don't need Bush," says one female pensioner. Even the innkeeper Olaf Micheel, who will be in charge of the barbecue tomorrow, speaks about the visit in a conspicuously reserved manner. Of course the visit is a "unique opportunity" for the town, which can now present itself to the entire world, he says. But he adds: "I'm receiving the chancellor and her visitor." He speaks about Merkel highly respectfully, calling her "Dr. Merkel." All he says about Bush is that you don't have to agree with all his views in order to receive him as a guest.
It's not surprising that the US president, who is unliked in Germany for the war in Iraq and for the aspects of the Washington's war on terror like the detention camp in Guantánamo, is seen as a controversial visitor. But it seems Merkel could hardly have chosen an area where reservations about Bush are stronger than in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. A coalition between the SPD and the socialist Left Party has governed the state since 1998. Both parties have explicitly criticized Bush's foreign policy in the past. The socialists have been ranting against the visit for weeks. They're supporting a protest campaign whose motto is: "Not welcome, Mr. President." This has now led to a bizarre situation: When Ringstorff welcomes the US president at the airport, his deputy, Environment Minister Harald Methling from the Left Party, will be speaking at an anti-Bush rally.
Even though the demonstration routes have been changed, Bush will hardly be able to ignore the criticism directed against him. For example, the preacher at Stralsund's Nikolai Church plans to explain to the president that the church's altar is an anti-war memorial. And the mayor of Trinwillershagen wants to carefully suggest to his respected visitor that the world's problems can't be solved by war.
Searching for Allies
But Bush will likely tolerate the criticism, just as the inhabitants will tolerate the hassles that come with his visit. He knows how Germans tick by now. This is his longest visit to the country so far. The first time he stayed in Berlin for 19 hours; the second time he stayed in Mainz for only eight-and-half hours. This time he's staying for 36 hours -- and spending two nights on the Baltic Sea coast, in Heiligendamm's luxury hotel.
Bush's new interest in Germany isn't just due to Angela Merkel, with whom he has a more trusting relationship than he did with her predecessor Gerhard Schröder. It's also his lack of political support at home that's motivating him to look for allies abroad.
The dispute over Iran's nuclear weapons program will be at the center of the discussions. Bush is also turning to Merkel in the hope that she will be an ally and an expert advisor at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg this weekend. There's certainly more on the agenda than just a barbecue, government officials emphasized on Tuesday -- Bush and Merkel will be working "very intensely" on their joint international agenda. After all, no one should end up with the impression that millions of euros are being spent just for a nice time next to the barbecue.
The cost issue has been the focus of public attention so far. State premier Ringstorff has personally addressed the question of money. Normally the region of Germany that hosts a visitor covers the costs. But in this case, officials in the state capital Schwerin point out that Merkel invited Bush to her electoral district on her own initiative. The poorest of Germany's regions won't be able to cover the costs of this visit by itself, Ringstorff argues. The issue becomes more controversial as regional elections will be held in two months. The SPD and Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats are accusing each other of abusing the visit for electoral purposes.
The costs were kept "as low as possible," government officials say. What that means in figures is 12 million ($15 million) or more. Government officials say the expense is justified because such visits add "an important accent to our foreign policy."
Ringstorff will probably have to wait a while to see any money. The city of Mainz is still waiting for the financial support it was promised by Germany's federal government. Bush's visit to Mainz cost 145,000 ($185,000); the federal government wanted to cover a third of the costs. The governor of Mainz has just sent the latest reminder to Berlin -- but up till now its only seen 6,000.