New round of wrangling breaks out in Berlin over coalition talks

Future of deal uncertain after SPD seeks further concessions from Angela Merkel

Martin Schulz, leader of the German social democratic SPD party. On Monday he said he would take another week to work out his next steps. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Martin Schulz, leader of the German social democratic SPD party. On Monday he said he would take another week to work out his next steps. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

 

Angela Merkel’s tortuous path back to power took another detour on Monday as a row broke out with her would-be coalition partner over its demands to renegotiate policy compromises.

On Sunday, delegates from Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) gave their leaders a half-hearted mandate to enter formal talks on their third grand coalition with Dr Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic (CDU/CSU) alliance.

Sunday’s vote boosted optimism in European capitals, and in Brussels, that the 17-week interregnum in Berlin was nearing an end.   

But an ambivalent delegate vote of just 56 per cent in favour of coalition talks left humbled SPD leaders vowing to revisit unpopular compromises already struck on health reform and migration policy.

Their hope: securing additional wins can convince a majority of their party’s 450,000 rank-and-file voters to use their postal vote to back the final programme for government.

Before formal talks for that programme could even begin on Monday, however, angry Merkel allies ruled out unpicking their existing preliminary deal. And so, four months after an inconclusive general election result, the lead players in Berlin’s game of political snakes and ladders were sliding back to the starting point.

Julia Klöckner, a senior CDU Merkel ally, said any future coalition deal would merely “spell out what was agreed unanimously in the exploratory agreement”.

“We will not shift any walls because then the entire structural engineering will be called into question,” she said on German breakfast television.

Next steps

After an exhausting battle to win over his party, SPD leader Martin Schulz on Monday said he would take another week to work out his next steps.

He ruled out supporting a Merkel government on election night last September, but has come around with a programme he hopes will boost infrastructure investment, reform education, support EU reform and boost pay of pensioners and old-age carers.

But party left-wingers and the SPD youth wing have attacked the programme for containing too little social democratic policy, and fear another term in office will be fatal for a party down to 18.5 per cent in polls.

“As soon as the final agreement is ready we will start campaigning for our position,” said Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD youth wing, and a leading opponent of another grand coalition.

With Mr Schulz’s authority dented by Sunday’s vote, senior SPD members on Monday denied that they were calling for Mr Schulz’s head, just a year after he was elected leader with 100 per cent support.

“I assume he is and will remain party head and will drive on the renewal process in the party,” said Barbara Hendricks, the SPD acting environment minister.

Senior SPD left-wingers warned on Monday that Mr Schulz’s future – and that of a new grand coalition – hinged on whether he could wring “improvements” from the CDU.

Speculation has grown in recent days that the would-be grand coalition partners have held back additional sweeteners for formal talks, although Mr Schulz denied this on Sunday evening.

CSU conundrum

The challenge for Dr Merkel in the coming weeks will be do make concessions to the SPD without losing the CDU’s own Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Facing state elections in September, it was the more conservative CSU which pushed the hard immigration line in previous talks so resented by the SPD.

On Sunday evening Dr Merkel remained vague on leeway in looming talks, saying that the preliminary agreement would provide the “framework” for discussions.

Either way, with Germany’s previous record of 83 days for forming a coalition long broken, the chancellor’s new goal for her fourth term is now Easter: 170 days after election day.