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Berlin

Obama and Merkel appear side-by-side in Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and visiting US President Barack Obama have spoken to the press in Berlin. Obama said the US relationship with Europe "remains the cornerstone of our freedom and our security."

Barack Obama faced largely German-speaking journalists with Chancellor Merkel before his major speech at the Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday and sought to reiterate the strategic importance of Germany and Europe for the United States as the global balance of power shifts.

Obama discussed NSA surveillance at length

"From our perspective, the relationship with Europe remains the cornerstone of our freedom and our security," Obama said, after discussing the emergence of new players like China, India and Russia. "Europe is our partner in almost everything we do."

At almost an hour in length, the press conference was among the most time-consuming events of Obama's 25-hour stopover, which is his first visit to the capital Berlin since a key campaign speech he gave prior to his election in 2008.

Obama spoke at length about the recently-revealed PRISM project run by the NSA that enables monitoring of Internet and telephone communications. Merkel had described the question of marrying security operations and protecting civil liberties as "an issue of balance and of keeping matters in proportion," Obama said the program was only used to monitor "very specific leads" and only "with court supervision and oversight."

"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else," Obama said. "This is a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our people - and all of it is done with the oversight of the courts. And as a consequence, we have saved lives."

The NSA on Tuesday said information yielded by the PRISM operations had thwarted 50 terror plots, including ones aiming at German soil.

Free trade pact on radar

The president also touched on the importance of bilateral trade, pointing out that "overall, Germany is our largest trading partner in the EU so we've got a profound stake in each other's success."

Where economic progress was concerned, Obama confined himself largely to generalities. Like the US, Obama said debt-laden European governments needed both to promote growth and "reform our economies structurally." He alluded to plans to do so in several sectors, including healthcare, on his side of the Atlantic.

"The good news is though that we have gone through the worst recession in years and we are poised to come back stronger, if we take advantage of these opportunities," Obama said.

He pointed to plans for an EU-US free trade zone as one such opportunity, with Merkel saying: "This free trade deal is very important to me personally."

After you

One of the front page news items during Obama's first visit to Berlin, in the heat of the 2008 election campaign, was whether the Democrat candidate and the German Chancellor would relate on first-name terms by using the casual form of "you" in German, "du."

In a moment of confusion on Wednesday as to who should respond first to a journalist's question, Obama hesitated. Merkel gestured to him to speak first and said in German "you (du), I believe."

Obama will deliver his keynote speech at the Brandeburg Gate on Wednesday afternoon. It's the same site where former US President John F. Kennedy in 1963 procliamed "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (which the crowd largely understood to mean "I am a citizen of Berlin") and where Ronald Reagan implored the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!"

According to officials in Washington, nuclear disarmament will be one topic Obama addresses on his first presidential visit to Berlin. He will also meet with Social Democrat candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, in the afternoon, three months before German federal elections.

msh/ipj (AFP, AP, dpa, Retuers)

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