x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A chance to mend fences in Germany

Barack Obama can expect the usual rock star treatment from the public when he arrives this evening but among German government officials, Obamania is waning fast.

BERLIN // Barack Obama can expect the usual rock star treatment from the public when he arrives this evening for a one-day stop in Germany after his landmark speech to the Islamic world in Cairo, but among German government officials, Obamania is waning fast. There is growing irritation in Berlin at what has been perceived as a series of snubs by the US president, most recently over the ­rescue of Opel, the German car maker pushed to the brink of ruin by its ailing US parent company, General Motors. Berlin had high hopes that Mr Obama would usher in fresh US policy on climate change, the Middle East and relations with Russia. His election victory triggered expectations of a fundamental improvement in US-­German ties that had recovered only slowly from the deep rift caused by the 2003 Iraq war, and were consistently hampered by isolationism. But the disenchantment with Mr Obama started within weeks of his inauguration when US officials declared he might drop the video-conferences that Chancellor Angela Merkel had held regularly with George W Bush. In the end the White House gave in, but it took two months to set up a conference. Then US officials ignored a German request for Mrs Merkel to visit Mr Obama before the G20 meeting in London in April, German officials said. Washington did not respond for days until her team dropped the idea in frustration. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, meanwhile, had secured an audience with the president in March. Last week, as the German government was wrangling to find a rescue deal for Opel, German ministers were alarmed to see that the US treasury, a key player in the discussions, had dispatched a third-tier official to the last-ditch talks with prospective bidders. Ministers attacked the US negotiating position as "unhelpful", "bizarre", "unacceptable" and even "scandalous" - unusually undiplomatic ­language for German officials, especially towards an ally. Part of the problem, senior officials in Berlin say, is that they do not know who to talk to in Washington because many key administration posts remain unfilled. There is a feeling in Berlin that at a time of economic crisis, jobs should be filled more quickly. "There's growing frustration in Germany, and frustration means that expectations are being disappointed," said Bernhard May, a Berlin-based analyst on transatlantic relations who heads the German group of the Trilateral Commission, an international think tank. "That was bound to happen if you look at the problems the Obama government has to deal with. But people are saying it's June now, why is Obama's government still not properly up and running?" Officials have also been perturbed by Mr Obama's refusal to visit Berlin during his stopover this week. Some have started to speculate that there is a lack of personal chemistry between the two very different leaders. Mrs Merkel, notoriously matter of fact and uncharismatic, lacks the easy charm and oratory skills with which Mr Obama inspires crowds. Privately, officials say Mr Obama may be taking revenge on Mrs Merkel for her refusal to let him give a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, the historically charged symbol of German division and unification, during a visit while he was campaigning for the presidency. Mr Obama went on to give his speech further down the street, and provided the world with a taste of his global popularity by attracting a crowd of 200,000 cheering Berliners. They greeted him as the next John Kennedy, who symbolised the deep bond between the two countries in the Cold War with his declaration "Ich bin ein Berliner" during his 1963 visit to West Berlin. Many Germans long for relations with the United States under Mr Obama to become as close as they were under Mr Kennedy. In a fresh sign of Mr Obama's popularity in Germany, a food company recently launched "Obama Fingers", a frozen snack of breaded chicken fingers with a curry dip, to boost sales. Despite their irritation with Mr Obama, politicians are desperate to clinch a photo opportunity with him in the hope that some of his messianic status may rub off on them before local, European and regional elections looming in coming weeks and months, culminating in a general election on Sept 27. The regional governors of the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony, Dieter Althaus and Stanislaw Tillich, members of Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, suggested that Mr Obama visit major ­historic sites with them during his stay: the Zwinger Palace museum in Dresden and the Anna Amalia Library in the eastern city of Weimar. But the White House declined. Mr Obama is scheduled to hold brief talks with Mrs Merkel in ­Dresden before visiting the ­Buchenwald concentration camp near ­Weimar tomorrow to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. His great-uncle, Charlie Payne, took part in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a ­Buchenwald satellite camp, while serving in the US army during the Second World War. He is also expected to visit the US military base in Ramstein and the military hospital in Landstuhl, where soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated. Mr Obama will travel on to France to take part in a ceremony on Saturday to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the landing of the Allied troops at Normandy in 1944. Although he remains a superstar to ordinary Europeans, and European leaders have welcomed his pledge to drop Mr Bush's go-it-alone strategy and start listening to them, political analysts say his foreign policy has yet to bear fruit, and that little progress should be expected during his European trip, which is steeped in the symbolism of the Second World War. "This trip to Europe is a journey into history. Going to Buchenwald and then Normandy is about ­underlining the fundamental ­importance of the transatlantic relationship," said Mr May at the Trilateral Commission. "It's a good combination." dcrossland@thenational.ae