Merkel SPD Challenger Blasts German Leader as Soft on Trump

  • Martin Schulz says Merkel must break with ‘erratic’ president
  • SPD signs off on party platform at Dortmund conference

Angela Merkel’s main challenger slammed the German chancellor for not going far enough in spurning an “erratic” Donald Trump, setting up the U.S. leader as a primary target in an election year.

German Social Democrat Martin Schulz cited Merkel’s statement four weeks ago in a Bavarian beer tent that the era of reliable relations with the U.S. are “to some extent over.” Merkel’s pronouncement was couched in vagaries, Schulz said, and didn’t squarely reject Trump and his demands to increase German defense spending.

Martin Schulz

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“We don’t know whether we can rely on the U.S., but we know very well that we can no longer rely on an erratic President Donald Trump,” Schulz told a Social Democratic Party conference on Sunday in Dortmund in Germany’s industrial heartland. “We’re not prepared to surrender ourselves to this Trumpian defense-spending logic, but have to forge our own path.”

Germany’s SPD under Schulz is struggling to regain its momentum against Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc three months ahead of the Sept. 24 election. The party plunged into campaign mode at the Dortmund meeting, where members signed off on a platform that includes tax cuts for lower income earners, tax increases for the wealthy and a pledge to stabilize eroding pensions.

Trump has proved to be one of Schulz’s favorite targets, especially the U.S. president’s vocal insistence that Germany urgently meet the NATO-set goal of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of economic output on defense. Trump chided NATO leaders at a May summit in Brussels, saying some owed “massive amounts of money.”

Such a boost would mean doubling Germany’s spending to 70 billion euros ($78 billion) a year, resulting in a Germany “surrounded by friends but armed to the teeth,” Schulz said.

Invoking Iraq

Schulz was backed at the meeting by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel’s Social Democratic predecessor, who cited his own rejection of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush in 2003.

“What’s going on now in the U.S., you have to criticize it openly and firmly,” Schroeder said. “I can still remember those who wanted to follow the Americans anywhere, including into the Iraq war.”

Merkel, who was the opposition leader during the Iraq invasion, blasted Schroeder’s anti-U.S. position at the time in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for all Germans,” which backed military action against Saddam Hussein as a last resort.

Schulz’s SPD has been knocked sideways after a poll bounce at the beginning of the year gave way to three straight losses in regional elections. The party, which largely pulled even with Merkel’s faction after Schulz’s surprise coronation as her party’s challenger in January, is now some 15 points behind the Christian Democrats.

After almost 12 years in power, Merkel has projected herself as a force of stability in a world awash in geopolitical risk, with Trump in the west, an assertive Russia to the east and roiling conflicts in the Middle East. That’s turned around what appeared to be an appetite for change when Schulz first arrived on the scene.

Merkel’s CDU-led bloc maintained the strongest nationwide support at 39 percent, with the SPD slipping a percentage point to 24 percent, according to a weekly Emnid poll published by Bild am Sonntag.

Schroeder, who was narrowly unseated as chancellor by Merkel in 2005, cited an even bigger poll gap between the parties when he had called that election early.

“We recovered more than 20 points in only a few weeks,” Schroeder said in Dortmund. “In the end, it wasn’t enough. But we fought and we caught up – and what happened then goes for you too.”

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