Michael Sohn, Associated Press
BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel taunted her election opponent Tuesday over Europe's debt crisis, noting that his party had backed practically all of her rescue policies and arguing that their proposals might make things worse by pooling countries' debt.
Challenger Peer Steinbrueck of the center-left Social Democrats argued in Parliament's last session before the Sept. 22 vote that Merkel has focused too heavily on austerity in Europe's struggling countries and done too little to encourage economic growth.
But Merkel said Europe must stick to her approach. To opposition heckling, she said: "It doesn't make sense, when you've voted for everything, to shout so much."
The Social Democrats and their allies, the Greens, have voted for most of the rescue packages and European policy changes proposed by Merkel's center-right government while also criticizing her approach.
Last year, she secured the necessary two-thirds majority to get a European budget-discipline pact through the German Parliament after offering the opposition a greater emphasis on economic growth and support for a tax on financial transactions.
Steinbrueck charged that Merkel's government has failed repeatedly to implement policy pledges. He complained there's been too little action to support growth, or combat youth unemployment or implement the transaction tax.
Steinbrueck insisted a recent statement by Merkel's finance minister that Greece, which received its first bailout in 2010, will need a third rescue program means that "the crisis management to date has failed."
Merkel's "very one-sided focus on austerity ... isn't contributing to these countries getting up from their sick bed, youth unemployment falling and banks being more strongly regulated," Steinbrueck said, accusing her of "playing for time" before the vote and delaying moves toward a European banking union — a key step to restoring financial confidence across Europe.
As for backing Merkel's plans, he said his party "deliberately did not pursue a policy of obstruction on Europe."
Steinbrueck spoke after Merkel delivered a robust defense of her crisis management. Her hard-nosed approach — insisting that struggling countries get their finances in order, take responsibility for their own problems and enact economic reforms — has been a political asset at home.
"It is important that we have clear principles," she said. "And the principle of our euro aid for countries in difficulties is that solidarity and their own contributions are two sides of the same coin."
"I can only say that we must continue along this path, and with (the Social Democrats) we cannot be sure that this path will be pursued, because you talk of a common debt redemption fund and eurobonds," she told the opposition. "And we say that can't work out well."
Steinbrueck's program advocates a debt-redemption fund that would see some eurozone debt pooled, a break with Merkel's refusal to countenance any debt pooling. It also comes with the caveat that Europe's strugglers would be made to get their budgets in order.
The challenger is pledging progress on setting up a central authority to wind up failing European banks — something Merkel's government insists would require time-consuming changes to European treaties. He wants it backed by a fund financed by the banks themselves, and pledged Tuesday that "with me as chancellor, there will be no German tax money to rescue foreign banks."
Recent surveys have given Merkel's conservative bloc a large lead over Steinbrueck's Social Democrats. A healthy German economy and low unemployment have made it difficult for her opponents to generate momentum for a change.
"One of your problems is that you can't be happy about developments in Germany," Merkel said. "And people don't like that."
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