Germany denies Bush thwarted Obama speech

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government denied on Friday that Washington had put any pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to block a proposed speech by U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama in Berlin in late July.

Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks at a "Women for Obama" campaign event in New York City, July 10, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Merkel’s spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said the Illinois senator was welcome in Berlin even if details of his visit are still unclear. He said, however, that Merkel had not dropped her objections to Obama speaking at the Brandenburg Gate.

West Berlin was a focal point of Cold War tensions, kept alive during a Soviet blockade six decades ago by a U.S.-led Air Lift. Since then, American presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have delivered major speeches here.

Leading German newspapers, including Bild and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reported that Bush administration officials attending a G8 summit in Japan this week expressed reservations to the German delegation about Obama speaking at the landmark.

“The reports are completely unfounded,” Wilhelm said when asked about the reports and a suggestion from Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit that the Bush administration had pressured Merkel.

“There were no expectations whatsoever expressed either outright or tacitly in that regard from American President Bush or his staff. It’s pure fiction.”

Wilhelm’s deputy Thomas Steg on Wednesday made clear that Merkel frowned on any speech by the U.S. presidential candidate at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of German unity trapped in a no-man’s land by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

Steg said Merkel was not happy to see the Brandenburg Gate used for “electioneering”, calling the idea “odd”.

That snub prompted a sharp response from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s spokesman, who said Germany would be honored by an Obama visit of any kind.

Merkel and Steinmeier, who are from rival parties forced into a coalition, may face off in a federal election next year.

The two sides tried to paper over the differences at a news conference on Friday after Wednesday’s row.

“The chancellor and the foreign minister are looking forward to the possible Obama visit,” Wilhelm said.

“It’s obviously an administrative matter for the city of Berlin and Senator Obama to decide the whereabouts of a public appearance. It’s not a federal decision. We’re in direct contact and confident of reaching a suitable solution for everyone.” (Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)