Obama and Merkel reprise double act in Berlin love-in
Pair received warmly but also field tough questions on drones and asylum seekers
Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: Steffi Loos/Getty Images
It felt like a collective farewell to a dear friend: a leave-taking suffused with dewy-eyed nostalgia combined with fear of an ominous, Trump-shaped future.
Tens of thousands converged on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Thursday to catch a glimpse of former American president Barack Obama and say goodbye to a leader who sprinkled a touch of rock-star glamour on the US-German relationship.
Many in Germany see that friendship imperilled by the new American president, whose apparent rejection of open borders, free trade and tolerance of minorities has thrown the postwar Atlantic alliance into question.
Mr Obama acknowledged as much when he said, without mentioning Mr Trump, that freedom-loving people had to “rally round those values that are more important to us” and push back against xenophobia and nationalism. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, he expressed confidence that “the better angels of our nature” would win.
Mr Obama was attending commemorations marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Thursday’s event was supposed to be an earnest discussion with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, on “shaping democracy – at home and in the world”.
When he turned to Ms Merkel and described her as “one of my favourite partners”, the applause rose to a rapturous crescendo
But it felt more like a love-in than a talkfest, with Mr Obama welcomed onstage with whoops and cheers. “Guten Tag!” he called out to the crowds. “It’s good to be back in Berlin!” When he turned to Ms Merkel and described her as “one of my favourite partners”, the applause rose to a rapturous crescendo.
The smiles exchanged between the two were in glaring contrast to the awkward body language during Ms Merkel’s first meeting with Mr Trump in the White House in March, when the president apparently refused to shake her hand.
However, the event was not all sugar-coated, especially after four young people were brought on stage to join the discussion.
One, Benedikt Wichtlhuber, attacked Mr Obama for authorising drone attacks that had killed hundreds of civilians. Mr Obama said he was acting to protect American citizens from terror attacks of the kind that killed 22 people in Manchester this week.
He admitted that his decisions had sometimes led to civilian casualties and that mistakes were made, “but there were no other ways to get to the terrorists”. He added, “War is always tragic, always messy.”
Ms Merkel, too, found herself under attack – this time from church leaders. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, complained about her government’s tough new policy on asylum, saying he had received countless letters from Christians who volunteered to help Afghan refugees and were now horrified because authorities were deporting them.
Merkel noted that 150,000 of the 890,000 refugees who had come to Germany in 2015 were from Afghanistan, and “less than a thousand of them are facing deportation”
Ms Merkel said the solution was to speed up asylum procedures so that refugees with little hope of staying in Germany were not allowed to live in communities and receive help from volunteers in the first place. “I know I’m not making myself popular with that,” she said.
She also noted that 150,000 of the 890,000 refugees who had come to Germany in 2015 were from Afghanistan, and “less than a thousand of them are facing deportation”. She added, “The vast majority have good chances of being integrated here.”
Mr Obama first wowed Berlin in July 2008, when the then junior senator for Illinois was campaigning for the US presidency.
Then Mr Obama railed against the unilateralism of George W Bush, against the Iraq war and the US’s use of torture, and spoke of his belief in “allies who will listen to each other, who will learn from each other, who will, above all, trust each other”.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017