Merkel rival launches election bid with a mountain to climb

15th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed a convention of his centre-left Social Democrats seeking to galvanise a party demoralised by a series of electoral drubbings, culminating in a crushing defeat in last Sunday's European elections.

Berlin -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's main rival launched his campaign to become leader of Germany on Sunday with polls showing he has an uphill battle ahead of him with just over 100 days before national elections.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed a convention of his centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) seeking to galvanise a party demoralised by a series of electoral drubbings, culminating in a crushing defeat in last Sunday's European elections.

"We have the right answers to the crisis, I am totally convinced. We have the right programme for the future of our country ... Germany needs a Social Democratic chancellor. Together we will achieve that. We want to win and we will win," he said.

Calling on the enthusiastic, banner-waving crowd to launch a "fiery election battle" with Merkel, he said he wanted to be "chancellor for all Germans."

"I tell you, this thing is open and we will keep it open and we will win out in the end," said the 53-year-old, who since 2005 has been foreign minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel in Germany's unwieldy grand coalition government.

Steinmeier sought to draw a line under the European election debacle, during which the SPD plummeted to an all-time low of 20.8 percent, a full 17 points behind Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

"Last Sunday was not a good day. It was rubbish. I was angry like you. But today is a new Sunday. Today we are here to look forward."

However, surveys showed that Steinmeier and the SPD still face a monumental challenge if they are to unseat the popular 54-year-old Merkel and her centre-right alliance of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU on election day on September 27.

A regular poll for ARD television published Sunday showed the SPD dropping two points to 25 percent, while Merkel's CDU/CSU gained two points to 36 percent.

Asked whom they would elect given the choice of Steinmeier or Merkel, 60 percent plumped for the current leader, compared to only 27 percent who want to see a change in the chancellor's office.

Steinmeier acknowledged the scale of the challenge facing him but said he was the right man for the job.

"I am familiar with difficult terrain, but I love the Dolomite mountains and I always manage to reach the top," he told news weekly Focus in an interview to appear on Monday.

In his speech, he said that all the positive policies implemented by the grand coalition came from the SPD side. "Without us, this country would look very different," he said.

In contrast, he attacked Merkel and the conservatives for claiming SPD policies for their own.

"Their motto is: wait, copy and take our ideas for themselves. That's not good enough," he said.

"Everything that kept this country together in the crisis came from us," he said, adding an attack on Merkel: "The ideology that took us into this crisis is not the way to get us out of this crisis."

But opinion polls have shown that Germans are reluctant to change leaders in the midst of the worst recession to batter the country in six decades.

Surveys have also indicated that people are not in favour of huge injections of public money to prop up ailing firms, as the SPD has advocated.

"In times of crisis, voters want politicians who look after them. And Mrs Merkel is occupying this ground even if it was traditionally the domain of the Social Democrats," Manfred Guellner, the head of the Forsa polling institute, told AFP.

Nevertheless, despite the yawning gap in the polls with only 104 days to go, Steinmeier himself pointed out that the SPD had in previous votes managed to claw back a seemingly-impossible amount of ground during the campaigns.

"Four years ago the gap between the Union (CDU/CSU) and the SPD was 48 to 29 about 100 days before the election. In the end they were practically equal," he told Focus, referring to 2005's inconclusive election result.

The SPD's election manifesto, also concluded Sunday, promised to reduce the fiscal burden on Germany's lowest earners and families and to introduce a flat minimum wage of 7.50 euros (10.50 dollars) per hour.

AFP/Expatica

 

EU deems Europe's beaches ready for the holidays

Although Europe's bathing water was mostly clean, Italy stood out with 553 coastal beaches and freshwater sites where bathing had been closed or banned throughout the season, far more than in other countries.

 

Brussels -- European holiday-makers can hit the beaches this summer assured that most of Europe's 21,000 bathing sites have clean water although about 1,000 are best avoided, the European Commission said last week.

"European's bathing sites remain clean and water quality is high," EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told journalists as he unveiled the 2008 findings of an annual report into bathing water quality.

"Over 96 percent of coastal bathing areas and 92 percent of inland bathing areas complied with minimum quality standards," Dimas said.

Although Europe's bathing water was mostly clean, Italy stood out with 553 coastal beaches and freshwater sites where bathing had been closed or banned throughout the season, far more than in other countries.

The list of sites can be found at www.ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-bathing/report_2009.html.

European Environment Agency executive director Jacqueline McGlade said that "it's too early to say" whether there has been an improvement at those bathing sites since last year as the data was not yet available.

The commission also said that clean water did not necessarily mean that beaches themselves were also clean.

Of the 14,551 coastal bathing areas in the European Union, bathing was banned or closed throughout the season in only 307 sites and was found not to be complying with EU standards in 208 sites.

Among the 6,890 freshwater sites, bathing was banned at 315 sites and was not up to EU standards in 196.

AFP/Expatica

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