VIENNA - Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has accused his successor Angela Merkel of neglecting her duties by going on holiday rather than chairing talks on diesel car emissions aimed at repairing the vital auto industry's battered reputation.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has a commanding lead in opinion polls ahead of a parliamentary election on Sept. 24. But her government has come under mounting pressure for not doing enough to crack down on vehicle pollution after an emissions scandal and for being too close to carmakers.
At a "diesel summit" in Berlin on Aug. 2, while Merkel was on a three-week holiday, politicians and carmakers agreed to overhaul engine software on 5.3 million diesel cars.
But environmentalists immediately dismissed the plan - almost two years after Volkswagen admitted to cheating U.S. diesel emissions tests - as too little, too late.
"I don't want to spoil anyone's holiday. But here I would have taken charge personally. It is all far too important," Schroeder, a Social Democrat who was replaced by Merkel after a narrow election defeat in 2005, said in an interview with Swiss tabloid newspaper Blick which was published on Sunday.
Ministers have been wary of angering the owners of 15 million diesel vehicles and damaging an industry that is the country's biggest exporter and provides about 800,000 jobs. At this month's meeting, politicians stopped short of demanding costlier mechanical modifications to engine and exhaust systems.
Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, also a Social Democrat, accused the VDA car industry association of lacking humility for the way it trumpeted the deal.
Schroeder, a former member of Volkswagen's supervisory board, said that had he been in Merkel's shoes he would taken a more muscular approach.
"What I took away from the media was that one manager or another definitely behaved arrogantly (at the diesel summit). I would not have put up with that. I would have thrown them out of the meeting," he was quoted as saying.
Although Merkel's party is well clear of its nearest rival, Martin Schulz's Social Democrats, an opinion poll published on Thursday suggested her popularity had dropped 10 percentage points to 59 percent.
Days later, back from holiday and kicking off her campaign, Merkel launched a stinging attack on German auto executives, pressing them to innovate to secure jobs, and win back trust lost by the diesel emissions scandal.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Greg Mahlich)