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Cheered By Crowd of 70,000, Obama and Merkel Talk Democracy, Globalism

On Thursday, more than 70,000 people welcomed former President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Obama and Merkel met to speak about civic engagement at the 500-year anniversary celebration of the German Protestant Church.

WSHU’s Cassandra Basler was there Thursday morning in Berlin as part of a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, and she spoke with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner about the event.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Hi, Cassandra.

Hello, Bill.

You’re in Berlin reporting on Germany’s response to the refugee crisis. Is that what brought Obama there today?

Well, the German Protestant Church actually invited Obama to speak about democracy and global responsibility. Obama is not a German Protestant, but he and Merkel both have said their faith motivated them to work in public service. And an important global issue is the displacement of people – the refugee crisis. Obama invoked religion when talking about the crisis:

“In the eyes of God, a child on the other side of the border is no less worthy of love and compassion than my own child. We can’t distinguish between them.”

But he went on to say that leaders of nations can’t just welcome everybody because they have a responsibility to their citizens and they have limited resources to offer.  

Countries in Europe have taken a lot of the responsibility of welcoming displaced people from the Middle East and North Africa, more so than the United States. Did Obama and Merkel say anything about the problems that come with accepting refugees?

Merkel said today that Germany alone welcomed about 900,000 refugees in 2015. And she’s faced a lot of criticism for that – concerns about integrating newcomers to society and finding them housing and jobs. There’s been a rise in right-wing political movements at the local government levels here, mostly in rural areas or outer suburbs that don’t actually host resettled people. But Obama says voters can challenge those nationalistic or xenophobic political parties.

“We have to push back against those trends that would violate human rights…or that would suppress democracy, or that would restrict individual freedoms of religion...and that is a significant battle that all of us have to be a part of.”

That sounds a little like a campaign call to vote, doesn’t it?

It’s interesting you say that because Angela Merkel is running for re-election in Germany. After the Brexit passed in UK, and Donald Trump was elected in the U.S., people got concerned that extreme right parties would gain political power in German parliament.

Many consider Germany to be the leader of Europe, so these elections are next in the spotlight, now that the French elections are over.

For those people fleeing countries where they may not have an opportunity to vote, what did Merkel and Obama say about them?

Obama and Merkel both support diplomacy and international aid efforts to help stop people from fleeing their countries in the first place.

“It is going to require, I think, everything we can do to recognize that what happens on the other side of the world or in these other countries, whether it’s in Africa or Asia or Latin America, that it has an impact on us and that we’re going to have to be invested in helping those countries achieve peace and prosperity.”

Obama told the crowd that sending aid to “teach countries to fish” and strengthen education and public health could help, and that’s what he plans to do with his new foundation.

Cassandra, thank you for joining us.

Thank you, Bil.

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.
Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.