SPD to poll members on supporting fourth Merkel government
Two months after poll, there is cross-party agreement on the risks of another election
Martin Schulz: shift follows annoyance among senior SPD figures at his haste in pushing for fresh elections before considering other options. Photograph: Stefanie Loos/EPA
Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is to poll rank-and-file members on whether to join – or support – a fourth Angela Merkel administration.
Friday’s concession from party leader Martin Schulz is the first sign of movement in Berlin since month-long coalition talks collapsed, leaving Germany – and potentially the European Union – in political limbo.
After talks failed last Sunday, Mr Schulz demanded fresh elections to break the deadlock. He ruled out a third spell of co-operation between the SPD and Dr Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), following two grand coalitions between the parties since 2005.
But Mr Schulz changed his tune after a meeting on Thursday with President Frank Walter Steinmeier and eight hours of talks with party allies that ran into Friday morning.
The SPD would “not refuse” the president’s “dramatic appeal” to negotiate with other parties, he said.
“Should [talks] lead to participation in forming a government, in one form or another, the SPD members will decide,” said Mr Schulz, promising to discuss each step with party members and officials, with “no automatism one way or another”.
Mr Schulz’s shift followed annoyance among senior SPD figures at his haste in pushing for fresh elections before considering other options.
Two months after Germany’s federal poll, there is cross-party agreement on the risks of another election, particularly its potential to boost support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland beyond its 12.6 per cent result in September.
But disagreement persists on whether the centre-left party should be open to another CDU-SPD coalition, or whether to support a minority Merkel administration from the opposition benches. A third idea on the table now is a so-called “Kenya” option: a three-way alliance between CDU, SPD and Greens, with the respective party colours reflecting the African country’s flag.
“The SPD cannot behave like a sullen child,” said Heiko Maas, the acting SPD justice minister, who is said to favour a third grand coalition.
Next Thursday Mr Steinmeier will chair a meeting with Mr Schulz and Dr Merkel in an effort to broker a new coalition deal.
In a day of fevered speculation, SPD officials dismissed overnight claims that Mr Schulz had threatened to resign. Senior party officials say that, far from pushing him out of office, there is no no rush to inherit what they see – for now, at least – as a poisoned chalice.
“Schulz will remain party chairman,” insisted Sigmar Gabriel, the last SPD leader and acting foreign minister.
After delivering the SPD’s worst postwar election result of just 20.6 per cent, Mr Schulz has seen his authority swing way towards the new parliamentary party leader, Andrea Nahles.
As she keeps close counsel on her future strategy, Berlin speculation has shifted to the consequences of Angela Merkel’s extended political limbo on Germany’s standing in the EU.
After the acting chancellor missed last week’s social summit in Gothenburg, she told her EU colleagues on Friday in Brussels her caretaker administration would “naturally meet our European obligations in full”.
“We will participate actively in things and consult with our parliament so we are able to act on necessary decisions,” she said, remarks that were met with “nods of approval” from her EU colleagues.
Dr Merkel has confirmed her attendance at next month’s European Council meeting and special Brexit summit, but other EU leaders remain unsure of how much – or how little – to expect from the acting German leader.
Without a parliamentary majority, Dr Merkel has no political mandate to participate in the political debate on creating a euro zone finance minister or transforming the ESM crisis pot into a permanent European monetary fund.
Germany’s European commissioner Günther Oettinger has insisted that, as the EU’s largest economy, “these questions cannot be decided without Germany”.
Chancellery officials in Berlin have noted with interest recent mixed signals from Paris. In public President Emmanuel Macron insists it would be a “mistake” to exploit Dr Merkel’s difficulties or Germany’s political crisis. In private, however, Paris officials reportedly see an approaching “end of the Merkel cycle” as an opportunity for France to take on more responsibility in Europe.
One way or the other, however, Germany remains crucial to Mr Macron’s euro-zone reform ambitions, given the SPD is far more enthusiastic than Dr Merkel’s CDU.