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Posts tagged ‘Frank-Walter Steinmeier’

Merkel Gets Tough as Russian Troops Hold War Games.

Russia launched new military exercises near its border with Ukraine on Thursday, showing no sign of backing down on plans to annex its neighbour’s Crimea region despite a stronger than expected drive for sanctions from the EU and United States.

In an unusually robust and emotional speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of “catastrophe” unless Russia changes course, while a man was killed in Ukraine in fighting between rival protesters in a mainly Russian-speaking city.

At the U.N. Security Council, the United States circulated a draft resolution that would declare illegal Sunday’s planned referendum on independence for Ukraine’s Crimea region.

But Russia, one of the Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members, made clear it opposed the draft.

“Russia announced they will kill it,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.

In Berlin, Merkel removed any suspicion she might try to avoid a confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We would not only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia,” she told parliament. “No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said serious steps would be imposed on Monday by the United States and Europe if the referendum on Crimea joining Russia takes place on Sunday as planned.

Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker who grew up in communist East Germany, has emerged in recent days as a leading figure in threatening tough measures against Moscow.

Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that over the weekend, European states would draw up a list of Russians who will face visa restrictions and asset freezes.

Putin declared Russia’s right to invade its neighbor on March 1, as Russian troops were already seizing control of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula with a narrow ethnic Russian majority and a Russian naval base.

Events have moved rapidly, perhaps signalling an effort by Moscow to turn the annexation into a fait accompli before the West can coordinate a response.

In the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a young man was stabbed to death and more than a dozen people were in hospital after pro-Russian and pro-European demonstrators clashed. The violence was the worst since last month’s overthrow of the Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich.

But in an apparently conciliatory move, Russia backed deployment of an OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, including Crimea, the Swiss chairman of the European rights watchdog said.

The leader of pro-Moscow separatist politicians in Crimea, who took power there after armed men seized the regional parliament on Feb. 27, predicted a strong vote in favor of union with Russia in Sunday’s referendum.

“We have a survey by renowned Ukrainian and Crimean polling experts showing clearly and plainly that more than 80 percent of people in Crimea are ready to join the Russian Federation,” Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov told Reuters.

Aksyonov, whose election in a closed session of the regional parliament is not recognized by Kiev, dismissed opponents’ accusations he will fix the referendum on Moscow’s orders. “We guarantee that all aspects of European law will be followed, including security for voters,” he said in an interview.

Western countries dismiss the vote as illegal. “The referendum on Sunday will have no legitimacy, no legal effect, it can have no moral effect. It is a piece of political theater that is being perpetrated at the barrel of a gun,” Daniel Baer, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, told reporters in Vienna.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said time was running out for a peaceful solution. She urged Russia to listen to the “remarkably unified” voices of its 14 fellow members of the Security Council and the Ukrainian people.

Diplomats said the one-page resolution would urge countries not to recognize the results of the vote in Crimea. A vote on the draft was postponed until Saturday at the latest to allow time for more negotiations.

Russia has taken territory from its former Soviet neighbors in the past with no serious consequences — in 2008 it invaded Georgia and seized two breakaway regions. But if Putin was hoping for a similarly tepid response this time, he may have misjudged.

In particular, he seems to have alienated Merkel, the Western leader with whom Putin, a German speaker who was once a KGB spy in East Germany, has had the closest relationship.

Merkel was initially more cautious than other Western leaders on the Crimean crisis, but in recent days she has pushed the European Union to match U.S. sanctions. EU action is critical because Europe does 10 times as much trade with Russia as the United States, buying most of its gas and oil exports.

The prospect that EU measures could be implemented as soon as Monday has weighed down the Russian economy.

Goldman Sachs revised its prediction for Russian economic growth this year down to 1 percent from 3 percent, blaming the tension over Ukraine for capital flight that would cripple investment. It said $45 billion had already left Russia this year, mostly Russians stashing money abroad.

The Russian stock market hit a 4-1/2-year low on Thursday and is down 20 percent since mid-February. The cost of insuring Moscow’s debt against default rose to its highest level in nearly two years.

The crisis has already forced several Russian firms to put plans on hold for public offerings to raise cash abroad.

Yet none of that appears to have slowed down Putin, who told officials of the Winter Paralympic Games he is hosting in Sochi that Russia was “not the initiator” of the crisis.

The Russian Defense Ministry said 8,500 troops were taking part in new military exercises near the Ukrainian border, testing artillery and rocket launchers.

It was the second big exercise Moscow has ordered since the crisis began; the first, involving 150,000 troops, started a few days before Russian forces seized Crimea.

In a gesture of support for NATO’s eastern members, U.S. F-16 fighter jets landed at Poland’s Lask air base on Thursday.

Among efforts by the West to isolate Russia politically, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 34-member rich nations’ club, announced it was suspending membership talks with Russia, under way since 2007.

Moscow has pledged to respond in kind to any Western sanctions. The prime minister of Lithuania, a former Soviet republic that is now an EU member state, said Russia had suspended food product imports through its port of Klaipeda.

But European leaders appear to be calculating that the damage to Russia would be far worse than to Europe. EU-Russian trade makes up 15 percent of Russia’s economy and just 1 percent of Europe’s. Although EU countries depend on Russian gas imports, storage tanks are full after a mild winter.

Diplomatic lines have been open between Russia and the West throughout the crisis: Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on Thursday, as they have nearly every day. They are due to meet in London on Friday.

Russia’s top general discussed Ukraine with the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee by telephone on Thursday, the Interfax news agency said.

The crisis over Crimea began after Yanukovich fled Kiev and pro-European politicians took charge, following three months of demonstrations.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Germany will back Greek aid but wary of hints at haircut.

  • Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble arrives at a euro zone finance ministers meeting in Brussels November 26, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

    Enlarge PhotoReuters/Reuters – Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble arrives at a euro zone finance ministers meeting in Brussels November 26, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

BERLIN (Reuters) – German lawmakers are likely to approve the release of Greek aid immediately despite suspicions that talks of a debt write-down have just been delayed until after Germany’s 2013 elections.

Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s center-right coalition and the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) said on Tuesday that the Greek deal agreed overnight would be put to the vote in the Bundestag lower house on Thursday or Friday.

With both sides voicing support, approval is guaranteed but the question will be whether the chancellor can rely on her coalition or needs the votes of the SPD and Greens.

They want to help Greece but will exploit any chance to embarrass Merkel ahead of September 2013’s elections, when she will seek a third term in office.

SPD parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his party would not do anything “that could lead to Greece becoming unable to make its payments in the short term or could force it to leave the euro zone”.

But he accused German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public, which might accept granting already-agreed aid tranches but would not easily support a second write-down of Greek public debt.

“Mr. Schaeuble brags to his own bloc that a debt haircut has been avoided but I tell you it has just been postponed to after the Bundestag elections,” he told German TV, adding that euro zone ministers had made “cryptic hints” to this effect.

Greece’s international lenders finally reached a deal on a package of measures to reduce Greek debt by 40 billion euros, cutting it to 124 percent of gross domestic product by 2020.

They also committed to taking further steps to lower Greece’s debt to “significantly below 110 percent” in 2022, the most explicit recognition so far that some write-off of loans may be necessary from 2016, the point when Greece is forecast to reach a primary budget surplus.

The SPD is not against writing off Greek debt but Steinmeier said Schaeuble should be honest about it. He was also worried that the International Monetary Fund appeared cautious in its support of the Greek debt deal.

Greece will get up to 43.7 billion euros in stages as it fulfills the conditions set by Europe and by the IMF – whose share will only be paid out once a Greek debt buy-back has been carried out. Steinmeier said this added uncertainty.


Merkel’s conservatives and their Free Democrat (FDP) junior partners include a small band who routinely rebel against euro zone bailouts in the Bundestag. Nowhere near numerous enough to defeat Merkel, they can however cause her embarrassment.

“The chancellor does not technically need her own majority but it is an important signal,” said a senior lawmaker from her Christian Democrats (CDU). “However, the number of rebels has not grown in the past six months.”

FDP whip Rainer Bruederle backed the Greek package, saying: “There is a danger with all these measures that they set a precedent … But Greece is an extreme special case.”

German indignation at continued demands for Greek aid has abated since Merkel’s visit to Athens in October, when she was impressed by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ determination to tackle his country’s structural spending problems.

But the conservative media is always quick to tap into the underlying vein of resentment among German taxpayers at having to bail out euro zone countries less frugal than themselves.

“Greeks Get 44 Million Euros,” was the headline of the top-selling Bild daily. It asked online readers what they thought of more Greek aid: “NO and once again NO!” responded a reader identifying himself as Frank Mergner.

“Athens can breathe again,” said Spiegel magazine, adding that euro zone ministers’ ambitious Greek debt-reduction targets “will clearly lead to a debt haircut in the medium term – even if such a step was rejected on Monday”.

Gerda Hasselfeldt, parliamentary chief of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, said German budget law meant such a step could be ruled out in future too. The CSU has recently softened its tone on Greek aid but would probably block a debt haircut.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Gareth Jones; Editing by Anna Willard)


By Stephen Brown | Reuters

German opposition struggles to unsettle Merkel.

BERLIN (AP) — Germany‘s main opposition party is itching to end Angela Merkel‘s 7-year grip on power — but with elections a year away, there is no challenger in place and little sign of a winning strategy.

Recently, the center-left Social Democrats‘ leader declared that elections expected next September must be about “taming the banking and financial sector,” and issued a proposal to boost pensions for low earners.

But his party keeps being asked one question: Who will challenge Merkel to lead Europe’s biggest economy? The choice could be months away. Meantime, Merkel enjoys stellar popularity ratings and polls suggest she would trounce any of her potential challengers.

One of the main sources of Merkel’s popularity, her handling of the eurozone debt crisis, is making it hard for the opposition to land blows.

The Social Democrats and their allies, the Greens, criticize Merkel for what they decry as a too-little, too-late response — before invariably supporting her plans in Parliament.

The Social Democrats have given themselves until the new year to choose between a trio of potential challengers — all ministers from Merkel’s 2005-9 first term, when she governed in a left-right “grand coalition” with the party of predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.

“We don’t just want to be back in government in 2013 — we want to shape this country, and not as the junior partner in a ‘grand coalition,'” one of the trio, former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said recently.

Still, neither he nor his rivals — ex-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck and the party leader, formerEnvironment Minister Sigmar Gabriel — have a winning electoral record.

Steinmeier was Merkel’s challenger in 2009, when his party slumped to a record-low 23 percent of the vote after 11 years in government, sunk by traditional supporters’ fatigue with economic reforms. Steinbrueck and Gabriel were once state governors but lost their regions to Merkel’s conservatives.

The three-way contest is getting stale, and the Social Democrats are struggling to break the 30 percent mark in polls — leaving them well short of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union.

Surveys show no majority for their hoped-for coalition with the Greens, themselves distracted by a membership ballot on who should lead their campaign.

The idea of keeping three candidates in play “was to confront the chancellor with three men who can do better than her,” the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung commented in an editorial this week. Instead, the result is that “even these three men together aren’t managing to put Merkel on the spot.”

Merkel’s own center-right government has become notorious for infighting and domestic policy paralysis. But with the opposition even more dysfunctional, she appears well positioned to embark next year on a third four-year term. That would allow her to follow the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte in avoiding the fate of a succession of European leaders felled during the debt crisis.

And her European counterparts shouldn’t hope too hard for a radical change of approach from Germany.

The main opposition parties don’t share Merkel’s aversion to pooling European debt, but haven’t been able to force her into doing that in exchange for their support on rescue measures.

Manfred Guellner, the head of the Forsa poll agency, points to the nickname “Mutti,” or “Mom,” that German media sometimes use for Merkel to pinpoint her appeal. He says it captures her ability “to suggest to people that she takes care of their worries,” particularly in the crisis.

Perceptions that she’s defended the country’s interests and led a sensible response to a bewildering mess have helped keep her popularity ratings high. Absent an unexpected euro meltdown over the coming months, that’s a big advantage for the coming campaign.

A poll by Guellner’s agency published Wednesday found that Merkel would beat the sharp-tongued Steinbrueck, who helped pilot Germany through the 2008 financial crisis, or the sober, businesslike Steinmeier by more than 20 points in a head-to-head vote, and Gabriel would perform worse.

The survey of 2,502 gave a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 points.

With traditional center-right and center-left alliances short of a majority, there’s a good chance that, come the end of 2013, the Social Democrats could find themselves with little choice but to serve Merkel in Cabinet again.

Merkel said this week that “the common ground … is the greatest” between her conservatives and the pro-market Free Democrats, but conspicuously refused to rule out changing back to a middle-of-the-road “grand coalition.”

A recent ZDF television survey showed that more than half of Germans would like to see that combination return.

“One cannot rule that out,” she said. “But I at least will not work toward that.”


By GEIR MOULSON | Associated Press

German opposition leader tells party can unseat Merkel.


BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to the emotions of his center-left opposition party on Saturday with an attack on Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s coalition and a vow to win back power in next year’s election.

Steinmeier, one of three Social Democrat (SPD) leaders jostling to lead the party into the 2013 election, delivered an uncharacteristically rousing speech to 700 SPD officials at a conference, in what sounded like an audition for the top job.

“We’re going to fight to win, not for second place,” Steinmeier said, dismissing suspicions the SPD would be content as junior partner in another grand coalition with Merkel’s conservatives. “We want to lead in a coalition with the Greens, a coalition that will point Germany towards the future.”

The SPD will pick a candidate in January to run against Merkel in the election due in September 2013. Steinmeier leads the pack, ahead of SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel and ex-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck.

Often criticized for a colorless and cerebral style, Steinmeier was full of fight during his hour-long address, drawing enthusiastic applause for bashing Merkel and her squabbling coalition which he said was squandering a solid foundation laid by the last SPD-led government.

“The country is in agony with this coalition,” he told the SPD’s “Zukunftskongress”, or conference on the future.

“Wherever you look they’re fighting each other. This coalition has been together for three years but they still haven’t formed a working government. They’re blowing the headstart for Germany we created for them.”


Having ousted Merkel’s CDU in three of Germany’s 16 state elections in 2011 and 2012, the SPD has said it wants to raise taxes on the rich if it wins back power in 2013.

“They’re talking the country into a coma with the same tired line: ‘We’re in good shape in Germany’,” Steinmeier said. “We’re glad we’re in good shape. But we know we’re living on borrowed time and we know that time is slipping away. This government is squandering the head start the last SPD-led government gave it.”

Steinmeier was chief of staff in the SPD-Greens government and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder‘s right-hand man in the SPD-Greens coalition that led Germany until 2005. Its “Agenda 2010” economic reform program is widely credited with setting a solid basis for Germany’s performance even though the painful measures hurt the SPD at the polls.

Steinmeier was foreign minister under Merkel in the CDU-SPD grand coalition that helped guide Germany through the 2008/09 financial crisis that hit the export-oriented economy hard.

Recent opinion polls show Merkel’s conservatives would win about 36 percent of the vote but their Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners would win only four percent and fail even to clear the 5 percent threshold needed for seats in parliament.

Steinmeier’s SPD would win 30 percent and their preferred Greens partners would win 13 percent. But their combined total of 43 percent would likely fall short of about the 47- to 48-percent analysts say is needed to form a parliamentary majority. Many analysts expect a grand coalition as the likely outcome.

Long ambivalent about whether to run against Merkel again, wary of a second drubbing after the SPD got a post-war record low score of 23 percent in 2009, Steinmeier now appears to really want the job.

His main rival, Steinbrueck, who was in Merkel’s cabinet as finance minister from 2005 to 2009, said the party needed to regain its confidence.

“Sure, we can talk about the mistakes we made. But we ought to start showing some political body language and explain to people that a lot of what is going well in Germany right now is because of what the SPD did between 2002 and 2009.”

Steinbrueck, was a front runner a year ago thanks in part to his appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. But skepticism in the SPD’s left wing against him has remained high.

The third candidate, Gabriel, recently signaled he might withdraw from the race. Gabriel, 52, said he wanted to spend more time with his family after the birth of a baby daughter earlier this year.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)


By Erik Kirschbaum | Reuters

Analysis: Germany’s triangulated opposition.

BERLIN (Reuters) – Bill Clinton may have been the first to use a strategy of “triangulation” to win an election, co-opting policies of his Republican rivals to win a second term as president in 1996.

But it is Germany‘s Angela Merkel who seems to have turned the tactic, coined by controversial Clinton campaign guru Dick Morris, into an art form.

With a year to go until Germans go to the polls, the country’s leftist opposition parties are searching desperately for issues to throw at the conservative chancellor and finding the cupboard alarmingly bare.

It has been a great few years for opposition parties elsewhere in Europe. With the euro zone debt crisis raging, incumbents have been booted out of office in France, Italy, Spain and a host of smaller countries, including bailout victims Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

In the Netherlands, the big winner in an election set for September 12 is likely to be a far-left party that until recently was seen as a bit player in Dutch politics.

Yet Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), who will celebrate their 150th anniversary next year, and their left-leaning allies the Greens, have watched Merkel peck away at their programs, turning their most potent positions – on nuclear power, the environment, education, childcare and wages – into her own.

On the euro crisis, the theme that seems sure to overshadow all others in a German vote set for September 2013, Merkel has walked a tightrope, appeasing her bailout-averse domestic audience with tough rhetoric while keeping just enough money flowing to Europe’s battered periphery to ensure the euro train does not go off the rails on her watch.

The SPD meanwhile has tied itself in knots as it searches for a euro policy that is at once popular with voters and different from that of Merkel.

After coming out strongly for joint euro zone bond issuance early on in the crisis, the SPD reversed course last spring after realizing that three in four Germans opposed the idea.

This summer it recalibrated again, saying a more limited form of debt mutualization was advisable but only when tied to strict fiscal conditionality – a position so close to Merkel’s as to be indistinguishable to most Germans.

Lately it has taken to attacking the chancellor for not speaking up more forcefully against the European Central Bank‘s plans to buy the bonds of struggling euro members – not exactly a vote winner, even in Germany.

“The problem is that the SPD has no theme,” said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of the Emnid polling group. “On the euro crisis they have swung back and forth. They are not offering a real alternative to Merkel.”


The SPD kicked off an internal debate on its election platform early last year. In mid-September it will hold a “Zukunftskongress”, or conference on the future, to debate the policies it intends to take into the campaign.

But high-ranking members of the party concede in private that little of substance will emerge. Instead the party has decided to play for time in the hope that the euro crisis, domestic economy and political tide turn against Merkel.

“It makes sense to wait this out,” said one senior SPD official who requested anonymity out of reluctance to openly discuss party strategy.

“A weakening economy would make the campaign much easier for us. And we could see the euro crisis deepening, forcing more rescues and making it very difficult for Merkel to keep people in her own ranks on board.”

The party also plans to wait until after a January election in the state of Lower Saxony to pick a challenger to Merkel.

The hope is that an SPD-Greens victory in the central German region will give the left vital momentum, showing voters that victory is also achievable at the national level.

But even if it comes out on top, finding the right candidate will be tough. The odds-on favourite is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the respected but colorless former foreign minister who went up against Merkel in 2009, only to deliver the worst result for the SPD in the post-war era – a meager 23 percent.

He is seen as the least bad option among the SPD’s leadership “troika”. Party chairman Sigmar Gabriel is a fighter but unpopular and undisciplined. In an interview last week he all but took himself out of the race, saying he planned to cut back on his working hours to spend more time with his family.

Former finance minister Peer Steinbrueck, the third option, may be the one who wants it most. But he is regarded with suspicion by the party’s influential left-wing and the momentum behind his candidacy has faded since he made clear late last year that he wants to be the SPD’s frontman.


“If the SPD could combine the positives of each of them – Steinmeier’s seriousness, Steinbrueck’s financial acumen and Gabriel’s campaigning skills – they’d have a great candidate,” said Peter Loesche, emeritus professor at Goettingen University.

“But more than anything they need a strategy. Waiting until the euro falls apart or the economy collapses doesn’t cut it.”

The environmentalist Greens, who shot to record highs of over 20 percent in national polls early last year only to fade after Merkel herself jumped on the anti-nuclear bandwagon following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, are also engaged in a painfully public dance over who will lead the party into the vote.

Once celebrated for their youthful vigor and counter-culture creed, the Greens are now run by 50-somethings in suits, and the upstart Pirate party is siphoning away young supporters.

Richard Hillmer, who heads polling group Infratest-Dimap and advises the SPD, believes the party should give up trying to score points against Merkel on the euro crisis.

“She has positioned herself in such a way that there is very little scope for the SPD to benefit,” he said.

Instead, he says the left should challenge her on other themes, for example her failure to put in place stronger banking regulations, her ill-planned switch out of nuclear power, and rising inequalities in German society.

But even on these issues, Merkel and her aides are busy triangulating, working quietly on their own plans to neutralize any and all fields of attack.

(Editing by Mark Potter)


By Noah Barkin | Reuters

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