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Merkel urges 'collective' Syria response, Steinbrück attacks chancellor's record

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, the man who wants her job, met in the Bundestag just two days after their only TV debate of the campaign. This was the last scheduled debate before the election.

Chancellor Merkel used Tuesday's Bundestag debate to outline her position on a number of issues, including the Syria crisis, reiterating her call for a "collective response" to the alleged use of chemical weapons in the country's more than two-year-old conflict.

"There can be no doubt that there has been a gross violation of international law through the cruel deployment of chemical weapons," the chancellor said, without pointing the finger at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as some other leaders have.

She also said she still held out the vague hope that the United Nations Security Council would manage to pass a resolution on Syria, but noted that this was unlikely due to a "hard line" being followed by Russia and China, which, as permanent members of the Council, both wield vetos. Merkel also said she would used this week's G20 talks in St. Petersburg to try to help break the diplomatic deadlock.

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Merkel vs Steinbrück

"I have to say that this is not very likely but the time should be used. And that is why we are in constant talks with all our international partners, with Russia. And that is why we want to use the G20 meeting to do everything in our power to reach a common position of the international community. I think this is in everyone's interest."

The chancellor also used her speech to rule out German participation in any military strike on Syria.

She didn't refrain completely from campaigning, at one point attacking the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) for their criticism of the way she has handled the eurozone crisis.

"It doesn't make sense, when you've voted for everything, to shout so much," Merkel said.

'Stagnation instead of a fresh start'

The SPD's candidate for the chancellery, Peer Steinbrück, though, took the opportunity to try to score political points with less than three weeks to go until the September 22 election, attacking the chancellor and the governing coalition of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

Steinbrück, who was Merkel's finance minister in a previous “grand coalition" government made up of the CDU and his Social Democrats (SPD), repeated many of the points he had made in Sunday's televised debate, but did so in a much more spirited way. Steinbrück began by accusing he chancellor of having been a "complete failure" over the past four years.

"Instead of a fresh start there is stagnation, instead of a direction there is a traffic circle," Steinbrück said.

He also pointed to a growing gap between low and high income earners, saying Germany was "the country with the biggest low-income sector in Europe."

Recent opinion polls suggest Steinbrück still has to make up a lot of ground with the voters if he is to have a chance of replacing Merkel as chancellor. Polls have consistently given the CDU around 40 percent support in recent weeks, compared to around 25 percent for the SPD. They also show there was no clear winner in Sunday's debate.

The government's defense

While Merkel did not have a chance to respond to Steinbrück's remarks, the leading candidate from the FDP, Rainer Brüderle, launched a scathing attack on his Social Democrat counterpart.

Brüderle defended the government's record, saying it had been four good years for Germany. He also took the opportunity to remind Steinbrück of a number of gaffes that hurt him early in the election campaign.

"Your breakdown statistics are comparable to that of a Fiat Punto, but you act as if you were a top BMW," Brüderle said.

pfd/kms (dpa Reuters, AFP)

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