Berlin gears up for Obama visit
US presidential hopeful Barack Obama will on Thursday kick off a European tour in Berlin, where he can expect a rapturous welcome amid a deep yearning on the continent for change in Washington.
Obama will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier before holding a major foreign policy speech in front of what is expected to be a cheering crowd of tens of thousands.
"He is awaited like a magician who can clear away the clouds of a troubled world," the influential German news magazine Der Spiegel wrote in a cover story this week. "Obama is the hope of a Western world with a lot of worries."
The current leg of Obama's trip begins in the heart of what the current US administration dismissively called "Old Europe" for its fervent opposition to the Iraq war. Western Europeans have seized upon the Illinois senator's own early rejection of the Iraq invasion in the hope he can restore a relationship that conservative leaders such as Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have only just managed to mend.
While both leaders have a warm rapport with President George W. Bush, polls show the European public has grown increasingly disillusioned with the United States during the Republican's years in power.
They strongly support Obama's foreign policy goals including closing the Guantanamo Bay lock-up for terror suspects, fighting nuclear proliferation and facing up to climate change with an EU-style emissions cap-and-trade plan. Obama's calls for talking to Iran over its nuclear programme and renewing US engagement in the Middle East peace process have also received a warm welcome here.
The business daily Handelsblatt said Europeans must be aware, however, that in exchange for a stronger transatlantic partnership he would expect more of the continent including a stronger military commitment in Afghanistan, where Obama started his international tour Saturday.
"There have been warnings (for example over capital punishment) that Obama should not be mistaken for a secret European in the US elections," it wrote this week. "The next disappointment will come over Afghanistan, where he wants to boost troop numbers. Obama's hard-as-nails message is: dear Europeans, dear Germans, I'll keep you to your word if I'm elected. More international coordination means more European engagement in hotspots."
Merkel said Wednesday she was looking forward to meeting the source of so much fascination on both sides of the Atlantic. But she stressed that Germany had no plans to commit more troops to fight the Taliban. The chancellor also brushed aside a flap over her objection to Obama's initial wish to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, the iconic symbol of German
Asked about the remarks, Merkel said she took the "perhaps a bit old-fashioned" view that the landmark should be reserved for sitting presidents, recalling historic appearances by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
The presumptive candidate will instead speak in the Tiergarten park at the Victory Column, a 19th century monument to defeats of France, Austria and Denmark in successive wars and more recently, a venue for the wildly popular Love Parade techno parties.
Obama's staff has defended him against claims he is defying convention by taking electioneering abroad, saying the senator wanted to speak to the whole of Europe so he needed a big venue.
The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel said Obama's appearance would have a far different resonance than the historic Cold War visits of Reagan and John F. Kennedy, with whom Obama has drawn comparisons. But it enthused that he was uniquely prepared as a 21st century leader.
"Not only his age but above all his charisma make him predestined for the demands of tomorrow's politics: the new orientation of the world, which has been shaken by globalisation and is looking for a new order," it said in an editorial to be published Thursday.
Obama will continue on to Paris to meet Sarkozy on Friday, followed by a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London Saturday. Werner Weidenfeld, an expert in transatlantic relations at the Centre for Applied Policy Research in Munich, said Germany could take pride in the fact Obama had chosen Berlin instead of Paris or London for a major public event.
"Berlin as a symbol of freedom has a certain aura that lends itself to looking toward the future," he told AFP.