Merkel Takes Step Toward New Government for Germany
Posted January 12, 2018 1:43 p.m. EST
BERLIN — The leaders of Germany’s main establishment political parties emerged from overnight talks Friday morning with the outline of a possible coalition deal, bringing Europe’s biggest economy one step closer to forming another government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But many obstacles remain, not least a vote by members of one of the three parties, many of whom are less than thrilled to see the potential repeat of a coalition that has seen their vote share drop to postwar lows.
The marathon negotiation session, which went on for nearly 24 hours, was the final round in six days of preliminary talks among Merkel of the center-right Christian Democrats; Horst Seehofer of their conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union; and Martin Schulz of the center-left Social Democrats — the three parties that have governed Germany together in a “grand coalition” since late 2013.
All three lost votes and seats in the Sept. 24 elections, making the Social Democrats, in particular, reluctant to resume that arrangement. But the success of the populist Alternative for Germany, which became the first far-right party to win seats in parliament since World War II, made it impossible for Merkel to command a majority without the support either of the Social Democrats or of a disparate group of minor parties.
On Friday, the three leaders presented a detailed 28-page agreement that outlines the path toward another grand coalition. Formal coalition negotiations are to follow.
“I walked into this house over 24 hours ago — then, I was not sure that it would succeed, and I was only sure that it was a pretty big mission,” Merkel said of the conclusion to the talks.
But as hopelessness in the early hours of Friday gave way to cautious optimism in the morning, the steepness of the climb ahead remained evident: All three leaders must now secure the support of their party hierarchies. The Social Democrats must also put the agreement to their members, an obstacle that all three party leaders acknowledged Friday morning.
While the main issues were refugees, climate goals, social security, and the relationship with Europe, taxes and the ability to pay for new programs appear to have been the sticking point overnight.
“Government formation after the parliamentary vote in September is taking longer than we’ve ever seen in the federal republic,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president, told foreign diplomats at a reception Thursday night. “But just because something happens for the first time, doesn’t mean that it happens outside the rules.”
The talks that ended Friday were Merkel’s second attempt to assemble a new government. The first, involving the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens party alongside the Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union, failed after more than four weeks of negotiations that were marred by infighting and leaks to the media.
In the latest talks, both the conservative Christian Social Union and the progressive Social Democrats fought hard to ensure government policy would reflect their campaign promises, while the Christian Democrats, still the largest party in the new parliament, seemed to focus largely on keeping their leadership role.
The Christian Social Union is said to have secured an initial 1,000-a-month cap on visas allowing families to follow one category of refugees to Germany, a cap of 180,000 to 220,000 a year on the total number of refugees allowed to enter, and a promise that income taxes would not be raised. (The Social Democrats had been demanding an increase in the top rate, to 45 percent from 42 percent.)
The Social Democrats reportedly received commitments for hiring more care workers and increasing salaries in the sector, and for no cuts to the minimum pension level until at least 2025.
“Even though these pre-coalition talks are meant more as a getting to know your partner, they really have become coalition talks,” said Thomas Meyer, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, noting that final negotiations are increasingly based on the points hammered out during preliminary talks.
Schulz reportedly also pushed to include measures on strengthening the European Union. Among the three party leaders at the table, he faces the strongest opposition within his party. When the agreement was announced, Kevin Kühnert, who heads the Social Democrats’ influential youth wing, responded with a punning Twitter post likening the breakthrough in talks to appendicitis.
Schulz, who had expressly wished for a role in the opposition after the party’s two stints as junior coalition partner, must now travel the country to convince his rank and file that rejoining the government will be good for both the country and the party.
“In the end, there are always compromises one has to make,” Schulz said during a joint news conference. The Social Democrats, he added, were negotiating with two parties “who up until a few weeks ago were our adversaries in an election campaign.”
Merkel used her statement to talk about the many technical solutions included in the agreement. People might not care about exactly how responsibilities were divided, she said, “but they do want the country to function.”