Germany’s new Social Democrat chiefs spoil for a fight on defense

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Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken | Maja Hitij/Getty Images

‘Disarmament yes, upgrade no,’ says one of the ailing party’s new leaders.

BERLIN — The new leaders of Germany’s Social Democrats want to give peace a chance.

The SPD formally voted in a fresh leadership team Friday, with Norbert Walter-Borjans, a former finance minister in North-Rhine Westphalia, getting 89 percent support, and Saskia Eskens, an IT expert and lawmaker from Baden-Württemberg, securing 76 percent backing from party delegates.

“Clear edge, clear course, clear language,” Walter-Borjans told the party faithful at the SPD’s annual congress in Berlin, adding later that “this party is a party of demilitarization and de-escalation.”

With the national budget already set for 2020, setting an immediate new course for the governing coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will be difficult. Instead, alongside a commitment to shift left with policies backing a higher minimum wage and a spending splurge on infrastructure, the new leadership is gearing up for a scrap on defense spending.

“Disarmament yes, upgrade no,” said Walter-Borjans, adding that meeting a 0.7 percent of GDP spending target on development aid was more important than NATO spending. “My benchmark is not the 2 percent [NATO spending] target,” he said.

The SPD are currently in third place in nationwide polling following a string of demoralising results in regional votes

A tough position on defense spending puts the new leadership on collision course with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the defense minister and head of the CDU who has pledged to push a more robust military strategy and hit the 2 percent target by 2031. Next year, German defense expenditure is expected to reach 1.42 percent of GDP.

Walter-Borjans and Esken’s position is also a potential headache within the SPD as Foreign Minister Heiko Maas backs the 2 percent plan and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who also ran for the party leadership, is responsible for signing off on the budget plan for 2020, so implicitly backs a rise in spending, although far off the 2 percent demanded by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Hard target

A more pressing issue for Walter-Borjans and Esken is resuscitating a party in serious decline ahead of the next federal election in autumn 2021. They have pledged to double the party’s polling numbers — currently languishing at around 15 percent — by the end of 2020.

Both have made no secret of their skepticism in remaining the junior partner in Germany’s ruling grand coalition with the CDU, and made renegotiating the coalition contract a part of their leadership campaign. However, the Christian Democrats have ruled out going back to the negotiating table.

“I believe that the signal is that we should remain in the coalition” — Martin Schulz

The SPD are currently in third place in nationwide polling following a string of demoralising results in regional votes in states such as Bremen, Saxony and Thuringia. The next regional election in Germany will be in Hamburg in February, offering the new leadership an early test in a traditional stronghold.

While Walter-Borjans and Eskens have attracted skepticism since winning the membership ballot at the end of November, on the ground at the congress the mood was positive.

“I am very satisfied,” said 18-year-old Lilly Blaudszun, one of the party’s younger members. “I think you can see very well at the federal congress where the new SPD goes, €12 minimum wage, stronger climate protection.” The party’s youth wing swung behind the team ahead of their election.

Stephan Weil, the state premier of Lower Saxony, a powerful Social Democrat state, told POLITICO the support for the leadership team was now clear. “It can go on like this,“ he said.

Martin Schulz, the SPD’s former leader and an ex-president of the European Parliament, said Germany’s EU presidency in the second half of 2020 means maintaining a stable government is a “basic prerequisite” that should rule out any efforts to crash the coalition.

“I believe that the signal is that we should remain in the coalition,” said Schulz. “But we should, of course, further develop the profile of the Social Democrats in the the second half of the coalition’s term.”

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