German chancellor, Berlin mayor bicker over Obama visit

Berlin's mayor wants to grant Obama's wish to deliver a major speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate, but Angela Merkel has misgivings.

Published July 9, 2008 3:40PM (EDT)

The warning from the Chancellery was clear: The Brandenburg Gate is the "most famous and history-rich location in Germany," a Chancellery source said on Monday. In the past, it has been used only on very special occasions for addresses by politicians, and only by elected American presidents. More clearly stated: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama would be better off looking for another location in the German capital to hold a speech.

But Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit appeared unimpressed by the warning from Chancellor Angela Merkel's office and said during a press conference on Tuesday that he would be pleased if Obama were to address the public at the Brandenburg Gate.

"We are not ruling anything out," a spokesman for the Berlin City Council said. "The Brandenburg Gate would certainly be a nice place." The local government also pointed out that the decision over where Obama should make his appearance was in the hands of the City Council and not the chancellor's office or the federal government.

In an interview, an Obama advisor confirmed that the Brandenburg Gate would be the Democratic candidate's top choice for the location of a speech on transatlantic relations. It would be a "simply great" backdrop, the advisor said. After all, the source added, John F. Kennedy's famous appearance outside the Schöneberg Town Hall in 1963 was still very much alive in people's memories.

Some suspect Mayor Wowereit's remarks may be self-serving. Jürgen Trittin, deputy floor leader of the Green Party in the German Parliament, predicted that Obama would end up speaking at the Brandenburg Gate. "Do you think that Wowereit would miss the chance to appear alongside Barack Obama," he asked an interviewer on German news channel N24. "I believe Wowereit is thinking: 'He should appear, I will come into the picture and everything will be great.'"

In fact, that doesn't seem to be too far off the mark. That's why the Chancellery expressly warned against making one of the country's main symbols of democracy available to anyone as a backdrop for a foreign election campaign rally.

In the meantime, though, the German government has already come up with a compromise. Obama, government officials have suggested, doesn't need to speak there -- he could simply walk through the gate.

"Until now every American guest has walked through the Brandenburg Gate," Karsten Voigt, the government's coordinator on German-American cooperation, said. "Journalists have always been present. And the guest has always had something to say."

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.

By Carsten Volkery

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