Germany's Gabriel warns of 'Cold War 2.0' threat from rearmament

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany stands on the front line of a new Cold War, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, and Chancellor Angela Merkel was making a grave error by following U.S. President Donald Trump down the rearmament path.

FILE PHOTO: German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel presides the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Gabriel told newspaper Bild that, in dealing with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Germany faced neighbors to East and West who believed “not in the strength of right, but the right of the strong.”

With a national election just a month away, Gabriel’s Social Democrats (SPD) are struggling to differentiate themselves after four years of coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) after a campaign attacking social inequality failed to rouse voters.

Gabriel’s comments lent support to remarks by Martin Schulz, his party’s candidate for chancellor, who this week criticized Merkel’s plans for expanded military spending and said he would have the United States remove its nuclear weapons from German soil.

“We are in a Cold War 2.0,” he said. “Right in the middle. We face a new phase of nuclear armament in East and West,” he told Bild in remarks published on Saturday. Putin and Trump believed that relationships between peoples and nations was “all about struggle,” he said.

“They don’t stress ... the strength of right, but the right of the strong,” he added.

Merkel believed she would win favors from Trump if she increased military spending up to 70 billion euros a year, he said. “I believe that is a major mistake.”

Germany and other NATO members had already pledged to raise their defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product before Trump was elected. While most of them have increased spending on their militaries, only a few have reached the 2 percent goal - and Germany is not one of them.

He also rounded on Merkel’s conservatives for their criticism of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has been attacked for taking jobs at Kremlin-linked Russian energy companies, most recently at Rosneft.

“When it comes to getting prisoners freed from the hands of Russian separatists in East Ukraine, then (they) are glad Schroeder has a line to Putin. But during a campaign against the SPD, it’s the other way round,” he said. “I find that cheap.”

With Germany’s economy booming and unemployment falling, polls show Merkel’s conservatives with a lead of as much as 17 percentage points over the SPD.

Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Richard Balmforth