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Merkel uneasy on Obama Brandenburg address

The German Chancellor has signaled unease over the prospect of a possible speech by the Democratic presidential hopeful at Berlin's historic gate.
/ Source: The Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled unease over the prospect of a possible speech by Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama at Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Merkel has "only limited understanding for using the Brandenburg Gate as an election campaign backdrop, as it were, and has expressed skepticism about pursuing such plans," Thomas Steg, a spokesman for the chancellor, told reporters.

However, Steg stressed that the chancellor is "very happy" for Obama to visit Germany and meet her and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Berlin city officials said this week that members of the Democratic candidate's campaign had contacted them about what permission and security issues would need to be resolved before Obama could speak in front of the monument.

The Obama campaign has refused to provide specifics on his plans during an upcoming visit to Europe and the Middle East, including the candidate's interest in a possible event at the Brandenburg Gate.

"Senator Obama looks forward to his visit to Germany and his opportunity to meet with the chancellor," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. "He has considered several sites for a possible speech, and he will choose one that makes most sense for him and his German hosts."

The gate stood for 28 years behind the Berlin Wall in communist East Germany's heavily fortified border zone. Probably the capital's best-known monument, it was once a symbol of Germany's Cold War division and now stands for its reunification.

Steg noted that the Brandenburg Gate has become "a place with a particular exclusivity, intensity and symbolism" in view of past speeches by sitting U.S. presidents and events such as a large rally in solidarity with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As a result, he said Merkel has voiced "great skepticism as to whether it is appropriate to bring an election campaign being fought not in Germany but in the United States to the Brandenburg Gate."

Steg said that "no German (chancellor) candidate would think of using (Washington's) National Mall or Red Square in Moscow for rallies, because it would be considered inappropriate."

He stressed that giving permission to use the venue is a matter not for Merkel's government, but for Berlin city authorities. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said Tuesday that he would be "delighted" for Obama to appear at the Brandenburg Gate or elsewhere.

In a famous 1987 speech that used the gate as a backdrop, President Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "open this gate" and "tear down this wall."

In 1994, four years after German reunification, President Clinton spoke on the other, formerly eastern, side of the gate — declaring that "Berlin is free."

Organizers of Obama's campaign have said he is planning two foreign trips this summer, including stops in the Middle East and major European capitals, in an effort to boost his foreign policy credentials as he prepares for the November election against Republican John McCain.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said there had been contacts with the German Embassy in Washington regarding Obama's trip. He said that, while German officials suggested that he could visit landmarks such as Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, the Cold War-era Checkpoint Charlie border crossing and the Brandenburg Gate, they had made no recommendations on any venue for a possible Obama speech.