Anger at swank new government guest house

22nd February 2007, Comments 0 comments

Berlin (dpa) - Most nations have them - official "guest houses" - where government leaders can entertain high-ranking foreign visitors in often luxurious surroundings. US president George W Bush's country retreat is to be found at Camp David, nestling in the Cantoctin Mountains in Maryland, some 100 kilometres from the nation's capital in Washington. British prime minister Tony Blair's is at Chequers, south-east of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It's been the official count

Berlin (dpa) - Most nations have them - official "guest houses" - where government leaders can entertain high-ranking foreign visitors in often luxurious surroundings.

US president George W Bush's country retreat is to be found at Camp David, nestling in the Cantoctin Mountains in Maryland, some 100 kilometres from the nation's capital in Washington.

British prime minister Tony Blair's is at Chequers, south-east of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It's been the official country residence of British Primes Ministers since 1921.

Now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also boasts one, 60 miles north of Berlin.

A magnificent 1738-built Baroque-style property called Schloss Meseberg (Castle Meseberg) it's situated in the eastern state of Brandenburg encircling Berlin.

Friday media attention will focus on Germany's latest government "guest-house" when Chancellor Merkel plays host at the castle for the first time - to French President Jacques Chirac, at one of their regular German-Franco consultations.

In the old Federal Republic during the years of division, the government's official guest house was to be found atop a hill overlooking the Rhine.

Nick-named the "Rotunde" (Rotunda) with its 23 conference rooms, it played host to a whole list of world leaders in the post-war years, ranging from Leonid Breschnev to Bill Clinton, the Shah of Persia to Queen Elizabeth of England.

But after German reunification and the controversial political "power transfer" from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, it was clear a new government guest house would have to be found closer to the old-new capital.

Schloss Meseberg received little consideration. Situated in the former GDR (East Germany), it was just one of a series of decaying country retreats which had fallen on hard times during the communist era.

Then, the Munich-based Messerschmidt Foundation, a private organization that renovates dilapidated monuments across Germany, acquired the castle in the mid-1990s, and spent 25 million Euro over the next 10 years restoring it.

The Brandenburg state government, it was thought, would find a role for the castle and was miffed when Matthias Platzeck, the state's premier, ultimately rejected the idea.

But Platzeck did toss the idea to then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who was seeking a suitable venue for summer government conclaves and a place for putting up high-ranking foreign visitors.

His dilemma was spotlighted in early 2005 when President Bush arrived for a visit. Concern about his safety led to a planned Berlin stop-over being moved to Mainz, near Frankfurt.

Late last month German Chancellory Minister Thomas de Maiziere was handed a symbolic key to Schloss Meseberg which, in a previous century, had served as the inspiration for Theodore Fontane's Enchanted Castle.

Planned as a government venue for international conferences and foreign guests making overnight stays, de Maiziere predicted "history would be written in the Meseberg meetings of the future."

Under a deal reached with the Messerschmidt Foundation the government will be allowed to use the property over a 20-year period at a rent of just one euro a year.

The government for its part has in the past year spent 13 million euros modernising its kitchen and heating facilities and by ensuring its security and technical facilities are also state-of-the-art.

While there is general satisfaction in Brandenburg that a worthy role has been found for the magnificently-restored property, feelings in Meseberg (population 135) are mixed.

Anger has been caused in the village by the decision to renew the 1.7 kilometre-long approach road to the castle. Community officials say the rough-surfaced, pot-holed road, was in dire need of repair.

The main cost will be borne by the Bund (German government) and Brandenburg state, but villagers with properties along the route are also being called on to make contributions, ranging from 2,000 to 15,000 euros.

Evelyn Briesmeister, 65, a village resident, is furious. "The state of the road didn't bother a soul in earlier times. Now, because government officials will be driving cars along it to the Schloss the whole village is made poor," she says.

Her husband, Horst Briesemeister, 70, agrees. Both have signed a citizen's "Buergerinitiative" in protest.

Frank Stege, 45, the district's head official claims the decision to renew the approach road at a cost of 1.2 million euros was taken in December 2005. "We aim to make the payments socially tolerable for the villagers," he insists.

DPA

Subject: German news

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