Merkel Reproached on German Cars as Election Challenger Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s main election opponent stepped up his attacks on her record, portraying her as slow to tackle the country’s diesel-car crisis, soft on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and out of touch with voters.

With four weeks left in the German campaign, Social Democratic Party challenger Martin Schulz leveled his broadest criticism yet at Merkel, whose Christian Democratic-led bloc leads the SPD by as many as 17 percentage points in national polls. The skirmish in separate television interviews offered a foretaste of the only TV debate between the two candidates on Sept. 3.

Merkel, for her part, travels to Paris on Monday for talks hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron on stemming migration to Europe. It’s a chance for the chancellor to play up her role as Europe’s longest-serving leader as she seeks a fourth term on Sept. 24 after 12 years in office.

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“More and more people are noticing how removed Mrs. Merkel has become,” Schulz, 61, told broadcaster ARD in an interview on Sunday, saying he wants to spare Germany “years of stagnation and political agony.” Merkel, asked about the comments on ZDF television, retorted that “I still have the strength and the curiosity” to lead the country.

Schulz, whose Social Democrats have been Merkel’s coalition partner over the past four years, homed in on her handling of the diesel-car crisis. He alleged she “has no plan” for addressing the scandal set off two years ago by revelations of emissions cheating by Volkswagen AG in the U.S.

Diesel Politics

Diesel cars have become an unexpected campaign issue as Merkel’s government faces pressure to help avoid court-ordered driving bans and a collapse in vehicle sales. 

Dealing with the crisis is a balancing act in Germany, where every fifth job depends on the industry and the sector accounts for more than half of the country’s trade surplus. While Green party co-leader Cem Oezdemir said the next government must chart a course for ending the combustion-engine era, Merkel and Schulz say diesel vehicles will have to be on the road for years to come.

The politicking prompted a rebuke by the association of German machine builders, which said the auto industry’s future requires a strategy, not “campaign-driven headlines.”

“We’re faced with an overhaul on the fly,” and “wrong political decisions” would be costly, Thilo Brodtmann, the group’s general manager, said in a statement on Monday. “Politicians need to set the framework based on realistic goals -- then, competition will lead to the best solutions.”

Suing Carmakers

Responding to pressure from her opponent, Merkel said she could envisage legislation to enable vehicle owners to file collective lawsuits against carmakers over excessively polluting diesel engines. Germany allows plaintiffs to bundle lawsuits against financial companies, and the same rights could be offered to car buyers if done right, she said.

“Yes in principle,” Merkel told ZDF. “But it has to be properly designed.”

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Schulz, who doesn’t have a position in Merkel’s administration, has said it’s the government’s job to avoid driving bans. In the television interview, he accused Merkel’s chancellery of blocking collective lawsuits against the auto industry.

“The individual consumer who drives a car and has to make his case against Volkswagen or Daimler is lost on his own,” he said.

TV Debate Ahead

The Social Democrat also criticized Merkel for failing to win over other EU countries to take in large numbers of refugees, pressed her to take a tougher stand against Erdogan over the jailing of German citizens, and touted a 12 billion-euro ($14 billion) plan to improve schools.

Merkel, who has avoided mentioning Schulz by name during campaign appearances, acknowledged her opponent during the ZDF interview.

“I’m happy to say those two words out loud,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to the TV debate.”

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