6th Aug 2020

Obama in Berlin again, but not Brussels

  • Obama is expected in Berlin on Tuesday night (Photo: G8 UK Presidency)

US President Barack Obama is due in Berlin on Tuesday evening (18 June) for a two-day visit after his trip to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit.

He frequently comes to European capitals, such as Dublin or London.

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But in his five years in power he has never gone to the EU capital, Brussels, and he is not going this time either.

The snub comes despite the fact Obama and top EU officials launched talks on a "historic" EU-US free trade pact at the G8 event.

The last time he was in Berlin, in 2008, Obama made an electrifying speech at the Berliner Victory Column.

He attracted a crowd of 100,000 people and raised his profile on the international stage shortly before becoming the first African-American President of the US.

This time around, he will speak at the Brandenburg Gate, the Cold-War-era crossing point between East and West Berlin.

His new venue follows in the footsteps of former US leader John F. Kennedy, who in 1963 visited the Brandenburg Gate and later uttered the famous phrase "ich bin ein Berliner" in a speech next to the Berlin Wall.

Former US president Ronald Reagan also urged then Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the wall in a Brandenburg Gate speech in 1987.

But Obama's address on Wednesday will have a lower profile than previous performances.

In practical terms, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate is smaller than the one around the Victory Column and just 4,000-or-so "selected guests" are to see him live.

His latest visit also comes under a political cloud.

Two weeks ago, US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) whistleblower Edward Snowden shocked Europe by revealing that America spies on Europeans who use Internet firms such as Google or Facebook.

The leak showed that Germany is the most spied upon of all EU countries.

For its part, the German Pirate Party, which advocates Internet freedoms, is organising a protest against US surveillance at the same time as Obama's speech.

It will take place at the Victory Column, two kilometres from the Brandenburg venue.

Meanwhile, some analysts say Obama is right to shun the EU capital.

Charles King Mallory IV - the head of the Aspen Institute Germany, an American think-tank - told press in Berlin on Monday that Washington is "pragmatic" enough to see where power resides in Europe.

He said: "We as Americans have a problem when we negotiate with Europe - there is the [EU] Council, the commission, the parliament. It is very difficult. This is not meant to be a snub to Brussels, but Germany is the economic motor of Europe, so it is very important for the US administration."

Carsten Brzeski, the chief economist at ING Bank, a Dutch lender, agreed.

"Berlin is the centre of power in Europe," he told EUobserver.

"Plus, he is following the tradition of Kennedy and Reagan to speak at the Brandenburger Gate, rather than showing up at the Rue de la Loi," he added, referring to the low-key location of the EU institutions in Brussels.

Brzeski noted that if the US wants to influence Europe, it has to "go to Berlin," which makes political decisions on EU affairs before they are formalised by EU bodies.

With general elections due in Germany in September, the ING Bank expert said "Obama wants to make sure the monetary union is staying its course for more integration."

EU countries are currently in talks to firm up joint economic governance in reaction to the economic crisis.

They are also debating whether too much austerity is harming growth.

Brzeski predicted that Obama is unlikely to press Berlin, the EU's biggest austerity hawk, to change its mind in the run-up to the September vote, however.

"I think they gave up on expecting Germany to agree to more stimulus. Anyway, we are already seeing a slowing down of the pace of austerity, with more time given to Spain and France," he said, referring to a recent EU decision to relax deficit-cutting deadlines for the two states.

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