HANOVER • US President Barack Obama arrived on a valedictory visit to Germany to see his "friend", Chancellor Angela Merkel, but their show of unity looked unlikely to silence opposition to their push for a transatlantic trade pact.
Mr Obama jetted into the northern city of Hanover yesterday from London, where he warned that it would be a "mistake" to send Western troops into Syria and cautioned Britain on reduced global influence should it quit the European Union.
While his fifth and final official trip to Europe's biggest economy is expected to cover global crises, one of the headline goals is to advance negotiations on what could become the world's biggest free trade deal.
Both sides say they aim to see the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership finalised, at least in its broad outlines, before Mr Obama leaves office in January.
However, Dr Merkel's Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel cast doubt on those ambitions yesterday, warning that the deal "will fail" if the United States refuses to make concessions in the protracted talks.
"The Americans want to hold fast to their 'Buy American' idea. We can't accept that. They don't want to open their public tenders to European companies. For me, that goes against free trade," Mr Gabriel, a Social Democrat who is also Germany's Vice-Chancellor, told business newspaper Handelsblatt.
His comments came a day after tens of thousands of people marched against the US-EU free trade deal through the streets of Hanover, where Mr Obama and Dr Merkel were to open what is billed as the world's largest industrial technology fair last night.
Before he left for Germany, Mr Obama told the BBC the US would continue efforts to broker a transition deal between the Syrian regime and its moderate opponents to end the bloody civil war, but warned against "simple solutions".
"It would be a mistake for the United States, or Great Britain, or a combination of Western states to send in ground troops and overthrow the Assad regime," he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Rather, he called for "international pressure" on "all the parties, including Russia and Iran, who, essentially, are propping up Assad".
In the same interview, Mr Obama reiterated his warnings about a so-called Brexit, saying Britain would have "less influence globally" if it votes to leave the EU in June.
During Mr Obama's seven years in office, the Democrat US President and the conservative German Chancellor have grown closer, and Mr Obama sees her, among European leaders at least, as first among equals.
"I consider Angela one of my closest partners and also a friend," Mr Obama told the Bild newspaper.
"I've worked with her longer and closer than any other world leader, and over the years, I've learnt from her," he added.
Mr Obama's two-day visit kicks off with talks with Dr Merkel and a joint news conference.
It will wrap up today with a keynote speech in which he is expected to frame his vision of transatlantic relations, and a meeting with Dr Merkel and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy.
For Mr Obama, the trip will be an opportunity to burnish his legacy and bolster Dr Merkel, whose fortunes at home have been hit by her handling of the migrant crisis.
Critics say her openness to refugees accelerated the vast flow of people coming from Syria and beyond. "I believe that Chancellor Merkel's approach to the refugee crisis - and that of many Germans - has been courageous," Mr Obama said, voicing an opinion heard less often in Germany than Dr Merkel would like.
Despite the diplomatic niceties, the relationship between the two leaders has had its share of rocky moments. Dr Merkel has backed austerity as the remedy to European sovereign debt crises, while Mr Obama came down firmly in favour of short-term spending to buy time and a way out of the morass.