Schröder settles old scores with Merkel and 'God-fearing' Bush

Germany's former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, has made a scathing attack on his conservative successor, Angela Merkel, accusing her of "lack of leadership" and belittling her foreign policy initiatives, in his first major interview since losing power last year.

The former Social Democrat leader's remarks, which provoked protest from conservative MPs, were made in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine to coincide with publication of his memoirs this week.

Asked about the growing unpopularity of Ms Merkel's grand coalition government, which has caused support for the conservatives to drop to a six-year low, 62-year-old Mr Schröder said: "There is simply a lack of leadership. That has created an incredible disillusionment through the conservative party." The former chancellor, who now holds a controversial senior post on the board of the Russian state energy giant, Gazprom, said the reform policies of Ms Merkel's government were "no big throw of the dice", adding that her attempts to streamline the country's complicated health care system had resulted in a "bureaucratic monstrosity".

Ms Merkel's success in improving the troubled German relationship with the US she inherited from her predecessor was dismissed by Mr Schröder with a sarcastic: "Now there you are!". Asked about Ms Merkel's change in German foreign policy by raising the issue of human rights on a visit to China, Mr Schröder said: "Yeah! I bet that hugely impressed the Chinese."

Mr Schröder said Ms Merkel had been taken in by the "bragging" of her own ministers who claimed they were "masters of their trade". Claiming Ms Merkel's Social Democrat grand coalition partners were the true leaders of her government, he added: "Now they see the opposite is true."

The former chancellor was unrepentant about joining Gazprom. "It is claimed that the pipeline is against German interests, but the opposite is true," he said. "I had expected to receive much praise for this, but perhaps that was exaggerated."

Ms Merkel's conservative ministers responded with vitriol. Michael Glos, the Economics Minister, said the German electorate was fed up with "the big mouth with which Schröder promoted himself" during office. "He is Mr Amateur," he said in a reference to Mr Schröder's economic policies.

Volker Kauder, the conservative parliamentary leader, said: "The fact that Schröder finds it necessary to attack his successor and with that, his own party friends, shows he has not got over his defeat." In excerpts from Mr Schröder's memoirs published yesterday, the former chancellor blamed the left wing of his Social Democratic Party and Germany's powerful trade union movement for engineering his defeat in last year's general election.

"They wanted to topple the reform programme and me as chancellor because I was connected with it," he said. Mr Schröder also provided a revealing insight into his impressions of President George Bush, with whom he clashed after his government vociferously opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2002: "During our private meetings, I was repeatedly reminded of how "God-fearing" this President was and how much he considered himself to be in tune with this highest authority," Mr Schröder wrote.

"The problem I have with such a stance begins when the impression increases that political decisions are being made as a result of a conversation with God. Somebody who justifies his political choices in this way cannot accept that they may be altered or even toned down through criticism or discussion."

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