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Barack Obama comes to Europe

Presidential candidate's plea to bridge the divide between Europe and America

Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks in front of the Victory Column (Siegessaeule) near the Brandenburg Gate on July 24, 2008 in Berlin, Germany
Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks in front of the Victory Column (Siegessaeule) near the Brandenburg Gate on July 24, 2008 in Berlin, Germany

By Anne Penketh in Berlin

Barack Obama last night brought his message of hope to Europe, pledging to heal the wounds inflicted by the Bush era through renewed transatlantic cooperation. In a keynote address to tens of thousands of Germans and other Europeans gathered at the foot of Berlin's soaring Victory Column, the Democrat spoke as a "citizen" not a presidential candidate.

He invoked the spirit of the Berlin airlift, exactly 60 years ago, as an example of a time when the US and the West stood with the beleaguered people of Berlin, who were cut off by the Communist blockade. "People of the world, look at Berlin," he said, constantly interrupted by cheers and applause from his mainly young audience. "People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment, this our time."

The airlift had been a show of solidarity in which the Western pilots had won over "hearts and minds", he said. "Now the world will watch what we do with this moment," he went on, as he called for a "true partnership".

He cited challenges ranging from lifting a child out of poverty in Bangladesh to helping dissidents in Burma, bloggers in Iran and voters in Zimbabwe.

The crowds went wild. They had come to the Tiergarten Park to hear Mr Obama deliver his speech as the sun set behind the Golden Angel atop its column, but the speech was long on ideals and rhetoric and short on detail.

Without mentioning the name of George Bush once, he won more applause as he outlined his vision of peace in the Middle East, a world without nuclear weapons, an end to the war in Iraq, tackling global warming and the defeat of terrorism.

He had been expected to deliver a "tough love" message to the Europeans at a time when Germany is currently under pressure to send more troops to Afghanistan. However, the closest he came was talk of burden sharing and joint sacrifice. His words were just what his audience wanted to hear.

The address was the centrepiece of a gruelling tour that has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine. In a revealing moment on Wednesday in Israel, he confessed to the right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that he was so tired that he could fall asleep "standing up".

The 46-year-old is hugely popular in Europe thanks to his youth, vitality and agenda for change. Opinion polls in Germany show that 75 per cent of the population is willing him to win against the Republican Senator John McCain.

He was treading in the footsteps of President John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who earlier used the symbolism of the once divided German capital to deliver historic messages.

Asked by reporters during his flight to Berlin about parallels with speeches by Mr Kennedy, who declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" and Mr Reagan, who urged the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down the wall", Mr Obama played down the historical comparisons. "They were presidents. I am a citizen," he said.

But at the Victory Column, he sounded more like a president, receiving thunderous applause when he said that "the greatest danger of all is to build new walls". He said Berlin had been chosen for his keynote speech because of its success in uniting Europe.

Mr Obama said he did not consider the event a political rally, although everyone was aware that his real audience was across the Atlantic. He said he wanted to communicate to both sides of the Atlantic "the enormous potential of us restoring a sense of coming together". Recognising that America and Europe had drifted apart, he said it was a chance to "remake the world".

His team have been concerned about the impact back home of the images of tens of thousands of ecstatic Germans who – along with the French – had been derided by the Bush administration as part of an "axis of weasels".

Mr Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, is due in Paris today, before he flies to London to wrap up his trip with talks with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – in that order.

British officials deny being miffed at Mr Obama's decision to deliver his grandstanding speech in Berlin. But, for the Germans, the choice of Berlin was an obvious necessity. "How can I put this politely," said Constanze Stelzenmüller, of the German Marshall Fund of the US, a Berlin think tank. "Britain has disappeared from Europe and the transatlantic relationship, except on issues close to Brown's heart. Angela Merkel is seen as Europe's leading stateswoman, with a record committed to Europe, and has been Forbes magazine's "most powerful woman in the world" for the last two years.

Mr Obama was treated like a rock star, and he didn't need any warm-up act. When it was all over, the masses were still chanting "Obama, Obama", as if they expected an encore.

US presidents' Berlin moments

John F Kennedy

Date: 1963

Crowd size: 120,000

Location: Rathaus Schöneberg

Catchphrase: "Ich bin ein Berliner"

Ronald Reagan

Date: 1987

Crowd size: 20,000

Location: The Brandenburg Gate

Catchphrase: "Tear down this wall"

Barack Obama

Date: 2008

Location: Tiergarten's Victory Column

Crowd size: Estimates stand at 200,000

Catchphrase: "Remaking the world"

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