Germany's Social Democrats Open Front Against Merkel on NATO

(Bloomberg) -- Germany’s Social Democrats zeroed in on an election-year line of attack against Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying they reject a NATO defense-spending target that’s being pushed hard by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz, seeking to recover momentum in his bid to unseat Merkel this fall after three regional-election losses, said a target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense would mean as much as 30 billion euros ($33 billion) more a year in weapons expenditure.

“This most definitely won’t happen with me and the SPD,” Schulz told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Schulz’s predecessor as SPD chairman, called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization benchmark “nonsensical” a day earlier.

The SPD’s stance shows Germany’s election on Sept. 24 is injecting campaign politics into her government as she prepares to meet fellow leaders of NATO countries in Brussels on May 25 -- including Trump, who has said Germany owes “vast sums of money” on security. The Trump administration has demanded that members of the military alliance detail how they’ll reach the 2 percent goal by 2024.

Schulz and Gabriel said Germany has an obligation to increase defense expenditure, but balked at the 2014 pledge by NATO governments, which calls on those that don’t meet the target to “move towards the 2 percent guideline within a decade.” The SPD leaders have said such spending levels are unrealistic for Germany and would provoke tension in a European Union already wary of German economic power.

Election Campaign

“I personally believe that it doesn’t help us at all to establish a national target in every country,” Gabriel told a conference on U.S.-German relations in Berlin on Tuesday. “I don’t really know where we Germans would go with our aircraft carriers if we invested 70 billion every year in the military.”

Germany’s defense spending amounts to about 1.2 percent of GDP. Merkel’s government, which includes the Social Democrats as junior partner, increased the defense budget by 8 percent this year to about 37 billion euros.

The Social Democrats may be engaging in an election-year bid to play off the German public’s traditional wariness about military spending, according to Jan Techau, director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin.

“It’s a classic Social Democratic move,” Techau said by email. “Trying to cash in on the assumed pacifism of Germans is an old strategy.”

Merkel’s Stand

Merkel has said she backs the NATO goal, though she has recently stood her ground more forcefully against Trump, reinforcing her point that security isn’t only about military outlays.

“As much as the U.S. government demands meeting NATO’s 2 percent defense spending goal by 2024, we will stand just as much by our 0.7 percent spending on development aid,” Merkel said in a speech on May 5.

While Schulz already cast doubt on the NATO target last month, the political stakes for the Social Democrats have increased after the three electoral losses, most recently on Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

That marked a reversal of an initial poll bounce for Schulz, a former European Parliament president, after his nomination in January. Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc widened its lead over the SPD in a Forsa poll published Wednesday, climbing 2 percentage points to 38 percent while the SPD fell 3 points to 26 percent.