08/07/2013 09:18 PM

Chancellor Challenger

Is Merkel Too Eastern for Europe?

By and

By suggesting Angela Merkel may not be a dyed-in-the-wool European because of her East German past, challenger Peer Steinbrück has opened himself up to criticism. Conservatives hope his quip will help them attract eastern voters.

It would seem that the fate of Peer Steinbrück, the center-left Social Democratic Party's (SPD) candidate for chancellor, is being guided by Murphy's Law. Every time his campaign seems to be gaining momentum, he gets himself into some fresh breed of trouble.

This time it has to do with Steinbrück's suggestion that one of the reasons Germany's current chancellor, Angela Merkel, allegedly lacks passion for European policies is her East German upbringing. Even though Steinbrück said his comments weren't meant as a reproach of Merkel, much less so of East Germans in general, the backlash has been considerable.

Now Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party wants to push the topic into the campaign. In the former East, home to a relatively large percentage of swing voters, there are many ballots still up for grabs. So it's unlikely the chancellor's team will forgo the opportunity to attack her Social Democrat opponent.

Christian Democrats Sound Off

Saxony's Minister President Stanislaw Tilich was on hand with sharp criticism for Steinbrück, telling SPIEGEL ONLINE that the candidate's remarks were "utter nonsense." Tilich, a member of the CDU's National Executive Board, continued: "The chancellor has demonstrated -- not only during the European financial crisis -- that she knows exactly how important Europe is for Germany." The SPD candidate, Tilich said, is lacking in a lot of categories, "but especially when it comes to knowledge of East Germans."

"The Saxons, in any case, know precisely how important European solidarity through European funding programs has already been for the economic reconstruction of the state and will continue to be until the year 2020," added Tilich.

Reiner Haseloff, the minister president of Saxony-Anhalt, also lambasted Steinbrück's comments. "We East Germans especially know that we have the European integration process to thank for the reunification of Germany," the CDU politician said. Haseloff then paid extra lip service to party leader Angela Merkel, adding, "That's why the chancellor is a convinced European."

The FDP Joins The Chorus

Steinbrück's gaffe is even drawing disparagement from the ranks of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). Sources from within the party say that Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister and the leader of the FDP, is "very angry" with Steinbrück. "The European Union is not the Western European Union," Westerwelle told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "German reunification was also the beginning of European reunification. Anyone who doesn't understand Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as Europe is living in the past," Westerwelle said.

Steinbrück's comments have drawn heavy criticism in recent days from across the political spectrum -- even from the far-left Left Party. They are said to have been equally ill-received within Steinbrück's own party's ranks, but at the moment no well-known Social Democrat hailing from the former East wants to publicly criticize him. Nevertheless, the candidate's latest in a long line of faux pas is not being received kindly.

Steinbrück made the notorious remarks at a public discussion organized by Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel newspaper on Sunday. When asked a follow-up question about a statement he made in 2011 espousing the same link between Merkel's European policy and her East German past, Steinbrück held to his position.

"I still hold firm the fact that she definitely experienced a different personal and political socialization up until 1989-1990 than those who have experienced this European integration since the 1950s, beginning with the Treaty Establishing the European Coal and Steel Community," he said. "That definitely plays a role in my eyes." Seeking to add a bit of nuance to the answer, Steinbrück also added, "I don't want that to be misunderstood as an accusation, because of course she couldn't choose whether to grow up on the east or west side of Germany and Europe."

Peer Does Damage Control

The chancellor candidate has since begun to backtrack, though. He "didn't want to offend anyone," Steinbrück told public broadcaster ARD on Tuesday evening, "by no means the 17 million other people who grew up in former East Germany."

The gaffe is particularly damaging because Steinbrück has already put his foot in his mouth when it comes to East Germany. In early July he gave an interview to Zeit magazine that even some members of his own party interpreted as a slight to former East Germans. Among other things, he compared joining the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the Communist party that ruled East Germany, with becoming a Social Democrat in West Germany's Ruhr area.

But Steinbrück is remaining true in principle to his belief that the chancellor lacks passion for Europe. Addressing the criticism, he urged people "not to fall back into an artificial sense of excitement." That, in turn, highlights another problem with the SPD's chancellor candidate. He was once a highly popular politician, precisely because of his clear positions. After a series of gaffes, though, he has gotten far more cautious -- even if he hasn't silenced himself completely.

Given the choice, Steinbrück would far prefer to have the kind of borderless intellectual freedom and leeway to make outrageous marks in the same vein as former German leader Helmut Schmidt did than to be stuck in the tight corset of his chancellorship candidacy. In fact, he has Schmidt to thank in part for his latest gaffe. In the book they wrote together in 2011, Schmidt wrote the following sentence: "Merkel can't give a pro-Europe speech because passion for Europe isn't inherent to her." Steinbrück then countered: "That's true. The burning question is whether the reason is that she was socialized in East Germany and that the European Project is thus remoter for her than a politician socialized in West Germany."


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