A Return to Berlin




May 10, 2013

 As I buckled in for the flight from Newark to Berlin, I found myself wondering what the coming week will bring. Berlin is a city I know well – having lived there before, during, and after the Wendi. Even after I left Berlin to move to New York City in 2002, I was back in Berlin at least four to six times a year – and in a good position to regularly measure the pulse of contemporary Germany. But, it has been three years since I was last in Berlin.

The last time I was in Berlin was June 2010. Now, I am going back to Berlin in the run up to the September election to lead a tour for the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

I’ll be spending a week with 15 Americans from across the country who want to learn more about Germany’s past, present, and future. In addition to seeing the sights and visiting museums,  we’ll have meetings with parliamentarians and opinion leaders as well as policy briefings at the Federal Foreign Office and the U.S. Embassy.

As I prepare for the week-long trip, I wonder what will have changed since I was last in Berlin…

From a political standpoint, it will certainly be an interesting time to be in Berlin:

President Obama will make his first official state visit to Berlin in June – just one week before the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Obama was in Berlin before he was elected, and he has been to Germany since becoming president, but he has yet to visit the nation’s capital in his current capacity.

German federal elections are four months away. A lot can happen between now and September, but our group will have a chance to delve into the emerging trends. And, this election could be very interesting. Although Angela Merkel still enjoys strong support, there is some criticism of her handling of the euro crisis. The Christian Democrats’ coalition partner – the Free Democrats – have slumped from nearly 15 percent of the vote in the last election to five percent in recent surveys. (Five percent is the minimum threshold for representation in Parliament.) Meanwhile, the Green Party has increased to 15 percent in opinion polls. And, a eurosceptic new party – Alternative for Germany – has emerged as a wild card that may weaken Merkel’s chances of reelection by siphoning off votes from the center-right. This could leave an opening for the return of a left-leaning government of Social Democrats and Greens.

The debate over the future of the euro – and the future of Europe – rages on in Germany and across Europe. And, U.S.-European free trade is a hot topic with negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) going at full steam.

Our delegation will certainly have lots to talk about…


by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh