BERLIN The leader of Germany's Social Democrats said on Monday he would stress disarmament rather than military spending if he becomes chancellor after September's election, rejecting U.S. pressure to spend more on defence.
Martin Schulz has led a revival in the left-leaning Social Democratic Party's (SPD) popularity since his nomination in January to challenge conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Sept. 24 federal election and try to deny her a fourth term.
Asked whether Germany's NATO membership could be up for negotiation in an SPD-led government after the election, Schulz said "we are a strong and reliable member of NATO".
But he added: "What we need is not an upward spiral in armaments but rather disarmament initiatives."
Germany has come under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to raise its defence spending to meet a NATO target of 2 percent of economic output. Merkel has said Germany is committed to the goal.
By contrast, Schulz's comments indicate an SPD-led government would strongly resist the U.S. pressure to spend more on defence. He took issue with the NATO target, which he said "would mean a substantial financial burden for Germany."
"If I interpret this correctly, what was said is that this (goal) is something to strive for," he told the foreign press association in Berlin, adding that any government he leads would not ramp up arms spending.
"It does not seem to me to be the overriding aim of German foreign policy to spend 20 billion (euros) or more per year to meet this goal and in the end to have a policy where, in the middle of Europe, there is an army armed to the teeth," he said, referring to the spending rise needed to meet the NATO target.
The SPD has held exploratory talks on the possibility of forming a coalition after September's election with the far-left Linke party, which rejects NATO and has called for it to be replaced by an alliance including Russia.
Late last month, the Social Democrats suffered their first electoral setback under Schulz when voters in the state of Saarland flocked to Merkel's conservatives for fear of a new left-wing alliance between the SPD and the Linke.
Asked by Reuters if this defeat meant the SPD needed to clarify its preferred coalition option, Schulz simply replied: "No."
Pressed on concerns among some voters about the SPD teaming up with the Linke, Schulz added: "I want us to become the strongest party in this country and whoever, after the election, wants to enter into a government is welcome" to talk.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)