Battle for the future of the discounted German version of Camp David – POLITICO


MESEBERG, Germany – The French own Fort de Brégançon, a spectacular medieval citadel on a Mediterranean islet. Americans have Camp David, a sprawling retreat that former presidents called “Shangri-La” for its secluded mountain beauty. The Germans have Meseberg.

Haven’t you heard of Meseberg? You’re not alone.

Formal retreats often perform a critical function, allowing world leaders to escape the noise and bustle of their capitals to reflect on big decisions or to welcome foreign leaders in a relaxed setting where deep conversations sometimes lead to disagreements. historic agreements. Camp David was the place where the Normandy invasion was partly planned, where Eisenhower and Khrushchev met, where Israeli and Egyptian leaders agreed to make peace.

The official retreat of the German Chancellor – Schloss Meseberg – an 18th-century Baroque castle located in a small village of 150 inhabitants in the countryside north of Berlin, does not have the same weight.

The castle by the lake, with its majestic columns and its high mansard roof, is undoubtedly a beautiful residence. But in a country renowned for its breathtaking castles, the Schloss stands out for its relative simplicity.

It was exactly the intention. Berlin wanted a formal retirement that reflected the modest ethics of its leaders. (Chancellor Angela Merkel, after all, is known to do much of her own grocery shopping in supermarkets.) In a country uncomfortable with the notion of its own world power, such humility also suits the self-image of Germany as a modest geopolitical actor.

Hans Heinrich von Srbik, chairman of the Messerschmitt Stiftung, a foundation that protects historic buildings and owns Meseberg Castle, put it succinctly in a recent phone interview: “Meseberg was handsome enough for Germany and not as pompous as the French. [residences], which would not have suited us.

Yet some in Germany are wondering, given the sheer expense involved in sustaining retirement and the lack of importance attached to it, whether it’s worth keeping the lights on – voices that could get louder. once Merkel’s successor decides what to do with Meseberg.

An unpretentious choice

The Messerschmitt Stiftung was founded in 1969 by Willy Messerschmitt, an aircraft manufacturer with a complicated heritage: he is best known for the Nazi warplanes he built during World War II, using forced labor. Its foundation spotted the castle for the first time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the structure – like many others in former East Germany – was neglected and dilapidated. The foundation finally undertook a multi-million euro renovation.

The official government retreat before German reunification had been Petersberg – a luxury hotel in the mountains south-east of the West German capital, Bonn. The restoration of Berlin as the capital, however, meant that a retreat closer to home was needed. So in 2004, just a year before Merkel came to power, the government struck an agreement to lease Meseberg Castle for 20 years at the symbolic price of € 1.

Meseberg was never designed to offer all of the luxurious features often appreciated by other world leaders: there is no swimming pool, no golf course, no tennis court.

While this is the kind of simplicity Merkel seems to enjoy, she did not use Meseberg as her own personal retreat, instead preferring to recharge herself at her country house in the Uckermark, an area of ​​Brandenburg state where she grew up.

Yet Merkel was keen to prevent the existence of the Schloss, however modest, from being interpreted by foreign leaders as a symbol of growing German geopolitical ambitions. To that end, government officials were encouraged not to designate the place as a castle, but rather as a Gästehaus, Die Welt reported at the time.

‘Haunted Castle

While Merkel invited leaders like George W. Bush and Emmanuel Macron to Meseberg, the castle has not seen much use over the years.

From 2015 to 2018, the castle was only used eight days a year on average, which includes two annual public events: an open house and a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, according to the government’s own accounts.

The lack of use reflects, to some extent, Germany’s continued reluctance to project a world power. And while it remains to be seen whether the next German Chancellor will use the place more, what has captured the most attention in Germany is a much more mundane question: the amount of taxpayer money spent on maintaining it.

According to the government, the operation of the pension costs 5 million euros per year. From 2015 to 2018, police surveillance alone cost 15.4 million euros.

An organization called the German Taxpayers’ Federation, which seeks to monitor government overspending, has included the Schloss in its so-called “black book” of public waste. “If the federal government wants to continue operating the castle, it should develop a concept on how it can be used more frequently in the future,” the association said.

There is, however, one constituency that has been particularly happy with the status quo. The people of Meseberg say their village has benefited enormously from improvements to local infrastructure as well as new jobs associated with the designation of the castle as the Chancellor’s Retreat.

“Seemingly overnight the village went from the Middle Ages to modern times,” said Bert Groche, who runs the local hotel recently.

Outside the village, however, there is significantly less enthusiasm.

“Meseberg is more of a haunted castle,” said Benjamin Strasser, a parliamentarian from the Free Democratic Party. “A guesthouse,” he added, “only makes sense if you use it.”

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