In the Bundestag, Steinbrück used the full half-hour of the Social Democrats' right-of-reply to a speech just delivered by Merkel before she departed Berlin for a further EU summit in Brussels on Europe's economic woes.
The former SPD finance minister accused Merkel of failing to deter members of her own center-right coalition government from "bullying" European partners when several months ago they openly called for a Greek exit from the eurozone.
Failed to intervene
"You didn't intervene," Steinbrück told Merkel across the chamber. "You didn't speak out for Europe and you vacillated," said Steinbrück who was named by the SPD's executive late last month to lead its campaign for the elections due in September 2013.
Referring to a former conservative pro-Europe chancellor, Steinbrück said, "Neither Helmut Kohl nor any of your predecessors would have allowed a European neighbor to be abused for domestic political purposes like that."
"Rarely has Germany been as isolated as today," Steinbrück added.
Steinbrück asked why Merkel had not declared her commitment to Greece back in 2010 and why she was reluctant to tell voters that Germany and its EU partners would still have to contribute more bailout funding.
Greece to cost more
"Looking at Greece, Germany will have to take on more obligations together with European countries - say it, finally," Steinbrück said.
He also accused Merkel of failing to sell the benefits of eurozone membership to German voters and of placing too much emphasis on a "one-sided therapy of save, save, save."
Instead, said Steinbrück, Europe needs a "true" growth and jobs creation pact and "effective" banking and finance sector regulation.
The current problem is more than just a currency crisis, Steinbrück said, adding that a "socially just Europe" would offer opportunities for all and answers for global challenges such as climate change and migratory pressures.
Avoid bottomless pit
Replying to Steinbrück, Rainer Brüderle, the parliamentary group leader of the liberal Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partners, said Greece must not become a "bottomless pit" without reciprocal obligations to perform.
Merkel, in her speech earlier, told parliament that the EU's economic affairs commissioner should have the authority to intervene when a member state's budget was declared "invalid."
The euro is "much more than a currency," she added and pointed to last Friday's award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU in the midst of the crisis.
In June, EU leaders responded to the crisis's impact on Spain by agreeing to move toward tighter coordination of economic policy to safeguard the euro.
In surveys, the SPD as main opposition party lags well behind Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), but has declared its hope to gather enough votes next year to rule in coalition with the smaller Green Party.
ipj/pfd (dpa, AFP, Reuters)