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Obama's 'Stasi' scandal in German spotlight

Revelations over NSA spying are threatening president's European trip.

Last Modified: 17 Jun 2013 20:18
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Merkel turned down Obama's request to speak at Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate in 2008 [EPA]

Fifty years ago this month, US President John F Kennedy delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in West Berlin, a fiery call to solidarity with democratic West Germany at the height of the Cold War.

Barack Obama will make his first visit to the German capital as president of the United States on Tuesday, in a trip meant to mark 50 years of German-US friendship since JFK's speech.

Obama is no stranger to Berlin: In July 2008, before he was elected president, about 200,000 adoring Germans thronged the candidate as he delivered a speech in front of the city's Victory Column. The "Obamamania" that swept across Europe that summer was particularly fervent in Germany, the EU's most populous country and biggest economy

On Wednesday, the US president will become the third - after Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton - to speak in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate, to a crowd of about 4,000 invited guests.

Obama is set to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks and a dinner at the Charlottenburg Palace. The two leaders will discuss Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and the economy, among other topics, said US Ambassador Philip Murphy.

'Yes we scan'

Yet even if Obama's speech is a rousing success - and polls show he is still quite popular in Germany, with more than 80 percent viewing him favourably - recent news about the US National Security Agency's wide-ranging surveillance programmes could mar the president's visit.

The revelations about the programmes, which monitor the internet communications of millions of people around the world, have sparked outrage worldwide. But Germany is especially irked. A leaked map from the NSA's Boundless Informant project appears to show that Germany was under particularly heavy US surveillance.

[The PRISM programme] is focused very specifically on one goal, which is ... how do we disrupt terrorist activity, how do we mitigate security threats, both to us and to Germany.

Ben Rhodes, deputy US national security adviser,

And given their history, Germans value their privacy - for decades, East Germany's feared Stasi, or secret police, ran an extensive and highly effective spying programme on its own citizens. As a result, Germany today boasts some of the strongest privacy laws in the world.

The German government has been alarmed by the news, with Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger writing in an opinion editorial for Der Spiegel: "The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the US administration itself is paramount at this point."

Markus Ferber, a German member of the European Parliament who belongs to the Christian Social Union party, referred to PRISM as "American-style Stasi tactics" when the news broke, according to Reuters. "You can't ignore civil rights only because of fighting against terrorism," Ferber told Al Jazeera.

German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said that Merkel "will surely address" the surveillance programme during Obama's visit. For his part, Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser, sought to assuage German concerns, telling the AFP news agency that the PRISM programme "is focused very specifically on one goal, which is, you know, how do we disrupt terrorist activity, how do we mitigate security threats, both to us and to Germany".

Meanwhile, Germany's Pirate Party - which is staunchly opposed to government eavesdropping - has planned a demonstration against PRISM on June 19, under the motto "Yes We Scan" - a pun on the "Yes We Can" slogan of Obama's 2008 campaign.

Arming Syria's rebels

Syria is also expected to be an item on Obama and Merkel's agenda. The US recently announced it would begin providing military aid to "moderate" rebel groups within Syria, after claiming proof that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in the course of the country's ongoing civil war.

But Merkel has stuck to her line that Germany would not provide arms to the rebels "under any circumstances". Hans Kundnani, editorial director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera that Germans were "alarmed about the direction that France and Britain - and now the US - seem to be moving in terms of thinking of arming rebels".

Germany - which has been wary of participating in military interventions since World War II - similarly sat out the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. That campaign, spearheaded by France and the United Kingdom and supported by the US, led to the downfall of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Former MP and Middle East expert Jurgen Todenhofer finds Germany's Syria stance reasonable, given the makeup of the rebel forces. The German government does not wish to act militarily, he says, because it "see[s] that a high percentage of the rebels are extremists. It's no longer the young, sympathetic, democratic demonstrators".

Yet despite differences on Syria, a foreign ministry spokesperson said on Friday that Germany "respected" the US decision to provide aid to the Syrian rebels, though it would not do so itself.

Free trade agreement

The allies' differences on fiscal policy have been more contentious. Obama has long been critical of austerity policies supported by Germany, such as tax hikes and lower spending, aimed at reducing budget deficits across the eurozone's debt-strapped countries.

Compared to many eurozone countries, the US response to the global recession has emphasised boosting growth rather than lowering debt. In the past, Obama has advised European leaders to boost spending as well, but Merkel has defended the austerity approach.

What Obama and Merkel can agree on is more free trade. The leaders will likely discuss the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), an agreement aiming to remove trade barriers between the US and countries in the European Union.

Last Friday, the European Commission opened negotiations on TTIP, which Merkel has said she will throw her "full political weight" behind. The Economist claims that getting rid of tariffs could boost GDP in the EU by 0.4 percent, and in the US by 1 percent.

"Given that the US and Europe disagree on how to weigh austerity and stimulus measures, this is also one of the reasons why they focus on the TTIP," Henriette Rytz, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Al Jazeera. "It's a different tool - it's a tool of free trade, it's a tool they can both agree on, and they both see lots of benefits. And it is something that is easier to pass."

Rational and cautious

As campaigners, Merkel and Obama are a study in contrast: Obama is a riveting orator, whereas Merkel is decidedly less charismatic. But despite their different styles, Kundnani says, "their approach to politics is not entirely dissimilar. They're both rational, cautious kinds of figures in terms of the way they actually make policy".

Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, sees another similarity between the two: "They're both kind of outsiders: an African-American from Hawaii and a woman from East Germany."

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama had asked to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate on his Germany visit - but Merkel snubbed his request.

During her visit to the US in 2011, when Obama presented Merkel with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and feted her with a state dinner, the German chancellor reportedly grinned and told the US president: "I can promise that the Brandenburg Gate will be standing for some time to come." On Wednesday, Obama will finally get his chance to speak from the historic platform.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

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Al Jazeera
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