Speech at Brandenburg Gate? German Politicians Are in an Obama Tizzy

The kerfuffle over Barack Obama's possible Brandenburg Gate appearance later this month just won't die down. Merkel's government has its doubts, but some in her own party don't see the big deal.

The debate surrounding the impending Berlin visit of US Presidential candidate Barack Obama refuses to abate. Even as the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is skeptical  about allowing the Democratic politician to hold a major foreign policy address at the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin, many other politicians -- including some from her own Christian Democrats -- are in favor of the idea.

Should Obama be allowed to speak here?

Should Obama be allowed to speak here?


"Many Germans want to get to know him," Ruprecht Polenz, chair of the foreign relations committee in the German parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's not just politicians, but the broader public. When the best possibility for that to happen is at this place, then I have no problem with it," he said, referring to the Brandenburg Gate site.

Polenz's comments come a day after a number of other German politicians came out in favor of allowing the Obama event, reportedly scheduled for July 24. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said he would love to see the candidate hold a major trans-Atlantic speech in the heart of Berlin. "We will prepare a warm welcome for him and will undertake all measures necessary so that he can deliver his message in Berlin," Wowereit said on German television.

Many have accused Wowereit, an ambitious Social Democratic politician, of being primarily interested in the rub-off effect of being seen together with Obama, who is immensely popular in Germany. Even still, others would also like to see the speech take place. Guido Westerwelle, head of the business-friendly Free Democrats, said that any objection to the Obama speech based on the idea that only elected presidents should be allowed to speak at the Brandenburg Gate is just "bureaucratic balderdash."

Westerwelle was referring to Merkel administration concerns that the Brandenburg Gate be turned into little more than a backdrop for political campaigning. The site played host to President Ronald Reagan's famous "tear down this wall" speech, and President Bill Clinton also spoke there. There are even some in Obama's campaign team that are concerned that a major speech at the Brandenburg Gate could backfire on the candidate were he to be seen as being immodest by appearing there.

The German government, however, is more concerned with other possible side-effects of the speech. An overly warm welcome for Obama could anger the Republican candidate, John McCain, as it would not exactly be a good starting point should McCain be elected this autumn. Furthermore, any indication that Berlin is over-eager to see the end of the Bush administration is not likely to play well in Washington.

Indeed, Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt told the mass circulation tabloid Bild that "it would be nice if the German government would focus on strengthening its contacts to us rather than already beginning to look for our successors."

Polenz, for his part, doesn't think such issues should be overblown. "It is always a bit touchy to meet with a possible successor during an election campaign," he said. But Berlin, he is confident, would certainly reassure the Bush administration that it is interested in working closely together up until the last day of Bush's term. An invitation would also be extended to John McCain. Indeed, whether or not Obama appears at the Brandenburg Gate, it seems clear that Merkel would meet with him and join him for a press conference.

The Berlin speech, Obama campaign sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday, is intended as a far-reaching talk on trans-Atlantic relations. Obama has been criticized during his campaign for not showing enough interest in America's European partners, an impression he would like to counter. At the same time, those sources said, he will likely take a tough line , demanding more assistance from Europeans in hot spots around the world.

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