Barack Obama received a hero’s welcome when he reunited with Angela Merkel for the first time since leaving office, calling on the audience to engage in democracy and telling the tens of thousands in Berlin: “We can’t hide behind a wall.”
Speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which was once cut off by the Berlin Wall, the former US president was greeted with cries of “Barack, Barack” as he urged the 70,000-strong crowd to “push back against those trends that would violate human rights or suppress democracy or restrict individual freedoms” and to “fight against those who divide us”.
He said he was heartbroken by the suicide bombing in Manchester on Monday, which killed 22 people. Calling the world a “very complicated place”, he said: “We can see the terrible violence that took place just recently in Manchester. It is a reminder that there is a great danger of terrorism and people who would do great harm to others just because they’re different. How heartbroken we are by the loss of life, and we grieve with the families.”
Obama called Merkel “one of my favourite partners throughout my presidency”. He said she had done “tremendous work” and he staunchly defended her refugee policy, which has come in for much criticism.
In an angry confrontation with the chair of the Protestant church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Merkel was asked why many refugees who arrived in the influx of about 900,000 in 2015 were now being sent home.
Bedford-Strohm said he had received hundreds of letters from people who, having sponsored refugees, helping them with everything from learning German to finding a job or a place in school or university, were devastated to be told they now had to leave.
“I know I don’t make myself very popular with this,” Merkel said, as crowds booed her. But she added that the system of processing asylum applications was being speeded up so people who were found not to be eligible could be sent back sooner. “We need to be careful that we really help those who need our help and of those there are plenty enough in the world,” she said.
Obama said he recognised the dilemma Merkel faced, trying to help those in need while protecting Germany’s own citizens.
He said leaders had an ongoing challenge to communicate to their own populations that the globalised nature of the modern world meant there were also selfish reasons for wanting to provide help to countries in need.
“When we provide development aid to Africa or we are involved in conflict resolution in areas where war has been taking place, [or] we make investments to try to deal with climate change … these things we do not do just for charity, not just because it’s the right thing to do or out of kindness.
“If there are disruptions in those countries and conflicts and bad governance, war and poverty, in this new world that we live in, we can’t isolate ourselves, we can’t hide behind a wall,” he said.
His veiled references to his successor, Donald Trump, who has proposed building a wall between Mexico and the US, who denies climate change is taking place and who is making moves to cut the US aid budget, earned him rousing applause, as members of the audience held up banners saying: “Can we keep you,” “We miss you,” and “Welcome back, Mr President”.
But Obama was also forced to defend his record as president on several occasions. A computer studies student asked him whether his conscience was pricked by the innocent civilians who had died as a result of drone strikes carried out under his watch.
“One of the biggest challenges as president of the United States … is how do you protect your country and your citizens from the kinds of things that we just saw in Manchester, England, just a few days ago, or the things that we saw in Berlin or in Paris or in Nice,” Obama said.
He urged his critics to weigh up the use of drones with the huge threat posed by terrorists. “These are groups that would be willing to explode a bomb in this audience right now and we shouldn’t be too complacent in recognising the need to fight against them,” he said.
“Hopefully over time it’s a battle of ideas and not just a battle of weapons so that we can convince fewer and fewer young people to get involved with Isis. But as long as they’re functioning out there, we are going to have to protect our people.”
Merkel added: “We are dealing with opponents who want to destroy our entire way of life. And what worked during the cold war – deterrence … prevented war, because both sides wanted to stay alive. That doesn’t exist with the terrorist groups. They are ready to give up their own lives to destroy the lives of others, as we have just seen in Manchester, of young people, families, ordinary people.”
Without referring to the connection with the Manchester bomb, Merkel referred in unusually passionate tones to the chaotic situation in Libya, which she said was causing suffering for the hundreds of thousands of African refugees stranded there and was in danger of fuelling more conflict. She called on international leaders to work towards turning it back into a functioning state.
The forum was the highlight of a nationwide series of events to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation, when the theologian Martin Luther gave birth to the Protestant church.