Politics & Government

Do high-level meetings imply Germany backs Jeb Bush?

Is Jeb Bush getting the royal treatment in Berlin?

Bush’s high-level meetings Tuesday in Germany appeared to push the line on German protocol in foreign elections, and perhaps could imply support for his campaign.

The former Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate arrives a day after President Barack Obama wrapped up a two-day summit in southern Germany. Across Europe, reports noted a cold undercurrent to the meetings between Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. German media has noted that in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Merkel often appeared almost besotted, but that in the wake of a U.S. spy scandal that included tapping her private and beloved cellphone, those days are long gone.

And as Obama left Germany, the country’s top cabinet-level ministers (finance and foreign) were preparing to meet with Bush. Beyond that, Bush had been tapped to speak at an economic summit connected to Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party, after which there have been rumors of a private meeting between candidate and chancellor.

Tuesday evening, as Bush finished what could have passed for a campaign stump speech, if not for the conference theme of “Reformen fur Deutschland und Europa” projected on screens behind the stage, the chancellor entered the room as the next speaker. It appeared carefully choreographed, and as such gave the impression that Merkel and the dominant political party in Germany for the past decade approve of Bush.

The announcer joked before a final round of applause for Bush, “Best of luck with whatever you announce on Monday.” Bush is expected to announce his presidential campaign Monday in the United States.

As for Bush’s speech, it was brief, mentioned his father more than his brother, and focused on the importance of letting the free market, and not governments, set the global agenda. He said that while the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the U.S. Senate, American ingenuity had led to a decline in U.S. carbon emissions.

He also made his case for the need for a strong American defense, using Russian aggression in Ukraine as his example.

“Putin will continue to push until someone pushes back,” he said in response to a question. Still, while the packed house applauded, and sometimes loudly, even Bush noted that he understood the real attraction was the next speaker, Merkel.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel addressed the concerns about the meeting: “The unusual reception of Jeb Bush by the most important German cabinet ministers shows what significance is given to a Bush candidacy in Europe – although it is not completely uncontroversial in terms of foreign policy.”

The magazine went on to frame a common question about the level of access given to Bush: “Officially, there is a line in Berlin not to interfere in the elections of other countries.”

“It’s all very informal,” Christian Lammert, an expert on North American policy at the Freie University in Berlin, said in an email response to McClatchy. “But giving Jeb Bush the opportunity to have these meetings is already an indicator that at least the CDU seems to have some preferences on the Republican side in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.”

That has raised the point of whether or not others in the crowded Republican field could expect similar treatment by Germany. The answer from all corners appears to be that they could not.

Bush’s appearance raises comparisons to an Obama campaign appearance in the summer of 2008. But media reports note that that visit was constructed to keep German federal officials on the noncommittal side.

The candidate had wanted to address Berliners at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, site of President Ronald Reagan’s famous, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech.

German officials refused that request, sending Obama down 17th of June Street to the less symbolically important Victory Column. At the time, the government feared that a backdrop as central as the Brandenburg Gate could be interpreted in the United States as German partisanship. Still, more than 200,000 Germans turned out to hear Obama that day, in a moment that resonated in the campaign stateside.

Germans are well aware that Berlin has been the site of several historic moments for U.S. presidents.

Reagan spoke with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. President John F. Kennedy stood in front of the West Berlin’s Rathaus Schoeneberg (city building) to deliver his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. That speech is both a treasured moment in U.S.-German relations and frequently parodied – a Berliner can be either a resident of the city or a jelly donut.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, scheduled to meet with Bush, was questioned about the propriety of such a meeting. His spokesman responded: “It is not unusual that the minister meets foreign guests.”

That wasn’t the common reaction, though. Handelsblatt, a Dusseldorf newspaper, noted in an editorial titled “Berlin is wooing Bush,” that the meeting appears to go against official government policy.

“It is a principal of the federal government not to get involved in foreign election campaigns,” the editorial said. “Still, Angela Merkel is receiving Republican Jeb Bush. It’s a tricky encounter that both want to use for their own agenda.”

In a different article, the newspaper states that for Bush, the trip appears to be an attempt to “sharpen his foreign policy profile.” But it notes that there could be a price. Bush should expect tough questions from a Berlin audience, noting torture and renditions were likely to come up. “His brother is simply unpopular in Germany,” the newspaper noted, though one reader comment said the phrasing was a bit precious: “Others would have just said hated.”

While Bush responded to questions at Tuesday’s event, none were about torture or rendition.

The newspaper went on to note that Bush should not expect an “Obama moment” in Berlin.

“Almost 200,000 showed up at the Victory Column to see Barack Obama,” it wrote. “Jeb Bush cannot even dream of such a reception.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.