BERLIN (Reuters) - European fans will cheer on U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama as he visits Berlin, Paris and London this week, but governments wary of his inexperience and evolving policies fear the euphoria is overdone.
Largely an unknown quantity in Europe, the Democratic contender is due to land here on Thursday, kicking off the second part of a foreign tour that began in the Middle East with a speech on trans-Atlantic relations in the German capital.
His appearance at the “Victory Column” in Berlin’s central Tiergarten park is expected to draw huge crowds and is being likened in advance to former president John F. Kennedy’s celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” performance of 1963.
But in the German Chancellery a few hundred meters away there is unease with the Illinois senator’s cult-like following and skepticism about whether he can live up to the hype.
“There is a sort of Obama-mania in Germany right now, but I think a lot of people will have their illusions shattered if he does become president,” an official in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
Some European officials recalled how difficult trans-Atlantic relations were in the first few years of President Bill Clinton’s administration because of his inexperience and the time it took to get his team into place.
“It is not the inexperience of Obama that should concern people but nmoreore the risk of a vacuum for a while,” one EU diplomat said.
But a survey released by the Pew Research Center last week showed Germans vastly prefer Obama over John McCain, his Republican challenger for the presidency, by a 49 point margin. In France it is an even wider 51 point margin and in Britain 30.
Obama’s vow to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and talk with Iran have won him admirers in Europe — particularly in Germany and France, countries that opposed the Iraq war and where President George W. Bush remains deeply unpopular because of the military adventures of his first term.
Yet politicians and diplomats from Berlin to Brussels say that if Bush’s second term is used as a benchmark, neither an Obama nor a McCain presidency is likely to lead to any dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy.
“One reason Obama is so popular here is that people expect him to break radically with the politics of Bush, without any understanding of what this would involve,” said Eckart von Klaeden, a German parliamentarian and foreign policy expert in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
He likened the huge crowds Obama is expected to draw in Europe to those that cheered on former Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the build-up to German unification. Kohl’s fans turned against him when his promises of “flourishing landscapes” in eastern Germany failed to materialize.
“Euphoria in politics is an invitation for disappointment,” von Klaeden said.
Diplomats in Brussels said they believed Obama would be better able to articulate a post-9/11 policy agenda than McCain, but predicted new demands on Europe regardless of who emerges victorious in the U.S. election in November.
These demands are expected to include tougher sanctions on Iran and a greater European military, civilian and economic engagement in Afghanistan.
A change in the White House could have the biggest impact on Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom have developed close ties to Bush in recent years.
Merkel, who has regular video-conference exchanges with Bush, and Sarkozy, who visited the U.S. president at his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, could see their influence in Washington wane in the short-term under Obama.
The same can be said for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has made plain his “very personal preference” for McCain. Berlusconi’s centre-left challenger in a May election, Walter Veltroni, had a campaign slogan borrowed from Obama — “Yes we can” — and compared himself to the U.S. Democrat.
In conservative Poland, there are fears an Obama administration could row back on the Bush administration’s plans to deploy a missile shield in central Europe, leaving Warsaw to pick up the pieces.
“The problem with Obama is that we still don’t know very much about what he thinks on foreign policy, he is tabula rasa,” said Rafal Trzaskowski, an analyst at the Natolin European Centre, a Warsaw think thank.
“We know what McCain stands for, we know who we are dealing with,” he added. “Obama stands for change, he is an energetic, self-made man, and that is heart-warming, but we need to know more about his policies.”
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor and Mark John in Brussels, Gareth Jones in Warsaw, Stephen Brown in Rome, Crispian Balmer in Paris; Editing by Douglas Hamilton