Obama wins European hearts with Kennedy-like speech

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US presidential candidate Barack Obama yesterday (24 July) pleased Europeans by pledging to make free trade and the fight against climate change priorities if he is elected in November. But he also called on Europe to take on more responsibilities in the future.

45 years after US President John F. Kennedy addressed the citizens of Berlin with the famous expression “Ich bin ein Berliner,” a crowd of 215,000 gathered along the historic Victory Column to follow Obama’s much anticipated speech.

“America has no better partner than Europe. Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic,” he said in his opener, adding that “we need a strong European Union that deepens the security and prosperity of this continent, while extending a hand abroad”. 

Eager to distinguish himself from the unpopular current US President George W. Bush, he told the audience that “partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity”. 

Without making specific demands, Obama said “Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less”. Leading German politicians had warned Obama not to call for additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, saying Germany was already doing more than it could. 

Obama also spoke in favour of open trade markets, saying their benefits needed to be shared more equitably. “Trade has been a cornerstone of our growth and global development. But we will not be able to sustain this growth if it favours the few, and not the many,” he said. “This is the moment for trade that is free and fair for all.” 

In an interview with EURACTIV, Francois Lafonde, the director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank, warned Europeans that a democratic president would be faced with strong demands from a Democrat-controlled Congress to follow a more protectionist line (EURACTIV 24/07/08).

Obama’s speech was well-received among German politicians, including Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, who described it as “a signal that the US is setting a new course”. 

The likely Republican presidential candidate John McCain criticised Obama for delivering such a speech at this point in time, pointing out that he had not even been officially nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate yet. However, this is seen as a mere formality. 

Obama is due in Paris today, where he meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy, arguably the most pro-American leader thar the ‘grand nation’ has ever had. Sarkozy has been heavily wooing the US leadership since he took office in May 2007 because he is eager to restore bilateral bonds which had severely suffered after strong French opposition to the Iraq war. 

After Paris, Obama will make a stop in the UK, which has maintained a ‘special relationship’ with the Americans since the Second World War. Both France and the UK had expressed their discontent over Obama’s decision to make Berlin the clear priority of his European tour, according to campaign sources cited in the American press.

They explained Obama’s travel itinerary was due to the fact that he considered Merkel as the strongest leader in Europe at the moment, with German-American relations – despite the special Anglo-American bond – the “most well-founded”. 

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