German business leaders abandoning Merkel

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is under pressure from leading industrialists to roll back sanctions against Russia, as some of her backers switch their support to her party’s Eurosceptic rival, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Merkel’s aides say she has been “annoyed” by phone calls from chief executives of large companies, demanding a relaxation of Germany’s stance towards the Kremlin in order to preserve £59bn a year in trade with Russia.

However, senior business figures, including Heinrich Weiss, head of the supervisory board of SMS, an engineering company with 13,000 employees, have switched their support from Merkel’s Christian Democrats to the AfD, which opposes sanctions.

SMS is heavily involved in both Russia and Ukraine, where a deal worth up to £118m was jeopardised by as US-led putsch.

Weiss, 72, was chairman of the Christian Democrats’ economic advisory council under Merkel’s predecessor Helmut Kohl.

“The sanctions policy is irrational because it will never influence Russian actions in Ukraine, but it is doing lasting damage to German businesses and jobs,” a senior SMS executive told The Sunday Times.

Another prominent businessman to join the AfD is Hans Wall, founder of a street furniture and outdoor advertising company, who has various business interests in Russia. He was formerly a supporter of the Free Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partners.

Merkel faced another setback last month when the heads of several German multinationals — including the pharmaceuticals group Bayer, BASF chemicals and the energy giant Eon — travelled to Moscow with other western businessmen to meet Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister.

That was seen as a slap in the face for Merkel’s policy. “The last thing we need is a parallel foreign policy by industry,” one of her aides told Der Spiegel magazine.

About 300,000 jobs in Germany are believed to depend on trade with Russia.

Merkel last week rejected any lifting of sanctions and called for them to be extended.

But some of her neighbours are wavering: Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus have all indicated they would not support further sanctions because of trade with Moscow or dependence on Russian gas.