Germany’s SPD agrees to talks on government formation

Party will begin exploratory talks in January but is refusing to set out stance

Martin Schulz: change of heart was backed by delegates at an SPD party congress earlier this month. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Martin Schulz: change of heart was backed by delegates at an SPD party congress earlier this month. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA


Germany’s Social Democrats have agreed to hold exploratory talks on forming a government with Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, marking a significant breakthrough in efforts to end Germany’s political impasse.

But the SPD is refusing to be pinned down on whether it will enter a formal “grand coalition” with the Christian Democrats, a prospect many in the party view with horror, or support a Merkel-led minority government.

“With this decision ... we are not committing ourselves to a particular formula of government participation,” said SPD leader Martin Schulz after the party executive voted unanimously in favour of starting talks.

Dr Merkel welcomed the vote, saying that in view of the troubled international situation, the onus was on Germany to end the political uncertainty in Berlin as soon as possible.

Europe is unthinkable without a strong Germany and strong co-operation between Germany and France,” she told the party congress of her CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU. “And that’s why we have a huge responsibility to form a stable government.”

But Mr Schulz stressed that, whatever was decided, Germany had to change. “We want a different culture of government,” he told reporters. “There can be no business-as-usual, no continuation of the grand coalition we were familiar with in the past.”

Priority list

Mr Schulz listed the SPD’s priorities in any talks with the conservatives: more investment in education and Germany’s system of care, more protections for workers on temporary contracts, tax relief for families, more affordable rental homes and reform of the EU.

The decision to start talks provides a glimmer of hope that a solution will be found to the political paralysis caused last month by the collapse of coalition talks between Dr Merkel’s bloc, the environmental Greens and the liberal Free Democrats.

Mr Schulz said a meeting would be held between leaders of the SPD and CDU/CSU on Wednesday next week. Formal exploratory talks between the three parties would begin in the first week of January, and would last about a week.

SPD reluctance

If a grand coalition is formed, it would mark a continuation of the alliance that has governed Germany since 2013, and for eight of the past 12 years.

But many in the SPD are highly reluctant to revive such an arrangement, blaming it for the party’s disastrous performance in September’s Bundestag election, when it fell to its worst result in Germany’s postwar history.

After the election Mr Schulz ruled out a further tie-up with Dr Merkel’s bloc and insisted the SPD would go into opposition. He didn’t budge even after the breakdown of talks between the conservatives, liberals and Greens.

But the SPD leader was later forced into a humiliating volte face after coming under pressure from senior members of his own party as well as the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a former SPD foreign minister, to drop his opposition to talks with Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU.

His change of heart was backed by delegates at an SPD party congress earlier this month, although any decision to form another grand coalition will be put to a vote of the party’s entire 440,000-strong membership. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017