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German automakers get the 'Trump-bashing' treatment during 'sleepy' election campaign

Sam Meredith
Michele Tantussi | Getty Images. German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched her re-election campaign with a scathing attack on German auto bosses on Saturday yet the electorate is unlikely to have been inspired by the criticism, according to ING Germany's chief economist.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched her re-election campaign with a scathing attack on German auto bosses on Saturday yet the electorate is unlikely to have been inspired by the criticism, according to ING (Euronext Amsterdam: INGA-NL) Germany's chief economist.

Merkel, campaigning to secure a fourth term in office , accused auto industry chiefs of "destroying trust" in the sector after the emissions scandal. Meanwhile, Merkel's political rival at next month's general election, socialist Martin Schulz, also targeted auto executives during his first official campaign speech. He suggested they had been putting the industry at risk by failing to prepare for the future.

Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING Germany, said Merkel and Schulz were both failing to generate support with their comments criticizing the auto industry. Instead, he argued they were simply "ticking the box of a spin doctor's manual."

"It's a bit like ' Trump -bashing' these days. You have to do it because the electorate likes it but it will hardly move votes from one party to the other. The problem is that the voters know about the interaction and ties between the automotive industry and politicos. This makes it hard for Schulz or Merkel to really distance themselves," Brzeski added.

'Sleepy, uninteresting and very dull'

The fate of the auto sector has emerged as a prominent and fiercely contested election issue with less than six weeks to go until the vote. The industry is Germany's biggest exporter and directly employs around 800,000 people.

The scandal over emissions surfaced nearly two years ago when Volkswagen (XETRA: VOW3-DE) – the world's second largest automaker – confessed to cheating U.S. emissions tests. The admittance immediately prompted concerns regarding a major source of pollution and has since emboldened those calling for a decisive switch to alternative fuels.

Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, described the relationship between German politicians and auto executives as "very ambiguous."

"Most people in Germany think that politics is too close to the auto sector… I mean roughly 80 percent of people polled say this is the case. German politics is far too closely connected to business and ultimately this will be very harmful to the economy," he told CNBC in a phone interview on Monday.

Wolff added that it was difficult to predict whether Merkel's and Schulz's criticism of the auto industry would translate into votes for their respective parties, especially given the "sleepy, uninteresting and very dull" nature of the campaign to date.

'Don't expect electric car quotas before the election'

Last week Reuters reported – citing a spokesperson for the environment ministry – that Germany believed the European Commission (EC) would soon propose quotas for electric cars in its next review of measures. The EC said last week that it had no plans to introduce such measures at a time when the sector was struggling to recover from a diesel scandal, according to the same report.

"Given that the EC is normally on holiday during the month of August, I don't expect anything seriously to come up before the elections," ING's Carsten Brzeski told CNBC via email.

Social Democratic Party leader, Schulz, has been a proponent for a mandatory minimum number of electric cars from the European Commission because, he argued, it would give auto makers incentives to develop new technologies. In contrast, Merkel defended diesel over the weekend and argued it had a key role to play in supporting the economy.



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