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In a Q&A session with foreign journalists, Social Democrat Martin Schulz said there would be no big defense spending boosts in the context of NATO. Instead, he stressed the primacy of the European Union.
US President Donald Trump has called loudly and long for NATO members to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of their GDP by 2024. If Social Democratic chairman and candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz wins power in Germany's national election in September, Trump won't get anywhere near that much.
"I'm not of the opinion that NATO has agreed to achieve this 2 percent goal in defense spending," Schulz told members of the foreign press in Berlin. "Twenty billion euros ($21 billion) or more in additional defense expenditures would certainly not be a goal my government would pursue."
At their 2014 summit in Wales, NATO members set 2 percent as a "guideline." Trump's White House treats this as a commitment, but the SPD led by Schulz say it's no such thing.
"If I interpret it correctly, all that was agreed was that we'd try to approach it," Schulz said. "It doesn't seem to me to be the highest priority to spend 20 billion euros more just to have a force armed to the teeth in the middle of Europe."
In the exact, ambiguous wording of the Wales Summit Declaration, members who didn't already meet the target promised to "move towards the 2 percent guideline within a decade."
Schulz's remarks came in response to a question about how his foreign policy would differ from that of the current government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. During the hour-long Q&A session, Schulz repeatedly stressed that the European Union would be his focus over other partnerships and narrowly defined national interests.
Ja, yes and oui to Europe
Chancellor Merkel is known as one of the most prominent and vigorous proponents of the EU anywhere today. But Schulz, a former president of the European parliament who spent 13 years of his career in Brussels, clearly thinks that there's room to be even more pro-Europe.
"There will be no talking down Europe with me in charge," Schulz said. "There'll be no saying 'everything good is national and everything bad comes from Brussels.' I'm for strengthening and reforming the EU."
Schulz said that decisions which could be made better at the local or national level should be made there. But he stressed that global economic relations, the fight against tax havens, climate policies, developmental aid, combating terrorism and security were all issues "that no one country today can handle alone."
As if to underscore his cosmopolitanism, Schulz took and answered questions in English and French as well as German. He discussed Germany's relations with South America at length, rattled off the tongue-twisting names of Turkish ministers when asked about Erdogan and the upcoming constitutional referendum in Turkey, and addressed questions about countries ranging from Greece to Israel to Ukraine.
And he repeatedly returned to the theme that foreign policy problems needed to be solved by the EU, and not Germany alone.
"I think the Federal Republic of Germany should make its contributions within the EU," Schulz said when asked about Russia and the conflict with Ukraine over Crimea. "One conclusion that I've drawn from my experience at the European level is that a basic element of politics is the search for mutual interests."
Such bromides may be short of specifics, but they seemed to go over as well with the foreign journalists as they did with the SPD rank and file, who unanimously nominated Schulz their candidate for the chancellery at a special party conference in March.
But there's one question Schulz finds difficult to answer: whether he would be willing to form a coalition with the controversial Left party in order to gain power.
No ja or nein to the Left
Since being made party leader, Schulz has lifted the SPD from its doldrums in the polls. The lone setback was last month's defeat by Merkel's CDU in a local state election in Saarland. Many observers put that loss down to voters rejecting the idea that the SPD could govern together with the Left, the successor to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the communist former East Germany.
The CDU has ruled out working with the Left. In Berlin on Monday, Schulz again steadfastly refused to say anything about possible coalitions other than that his aim was to attract the most votes and then invite others to talk to him.
When queried whether the lack of clear positioning vis-a-vis a preferred coalition was hurting the SPD, the otherwise loquacious Schulz answered with a terse "nein." In response to a similar question, Schulz dodged the issue by blaming the SPD's poor showing in Saarland on the individual popularity of the CDU's lead candidate there, implying that the situation would be different in September's national election.
Not only is the Left party tainted in many voters' eyes by its association with communism, but the party also wants to distance Germany from NATO and build closer ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia - a position that scares many people in the political mainstream.
The foreign journalists weren't particularly adamant about pinning the SPD leader down on the issue. Domestic reporters won't be so forgiving. The question of whether or not he's willing to do a deal with the Left party is one that Schulz will likely have to answer at some point, if he is to have any real hope of prying Angela Merkel from the chancellor's office.