Sunday's Social Democrat (SPD) vote in Bonn to enter coalition talks was less of a yes than a "yes, but". It grants acting chancellor Angela Merkel a temporary political reprieve but withholds, for now at least, her return ticket to office and a fourth term.
Instead, a record 17 weeks after Germany’s federal election, her preferred SPD coalition partner is tormenting Dr Merkel with the very same “baby steps” strategy she has used against them in two previous terms.
In an echo of Northern Ireland peace talks, Sunday's vote moves Germany from talks about talks to formal coalition talks in Berlin, likely to begin on Monday.
After yesterday's SPD vote, the upcoming talks are likely to be very robust. Just over half of SPD delegates gave their leader Martin Schulz a negotiating mandate to open talks – meaning 44 per cent of doubters want further concessions. Previous, preliminary talks saw the SPD secured promises to invest in education, infrastructure and pensions. Now the party wants to revisit issues blocked by Merkel allies the last time around: abolition of Germany's two-tier, private-public health system and liberal migration controls. "We will negotiate until there are squeals on the other side," said Andrea Nahles, SPD Bundestag leader.
But the acting chancellor insisted yesterday she would not unpick the framework for talks already agreed, suggesting only minor changes will be likely. That means talks could yet end in failure and fresh elections as Dr Merkel has already ruled out the final alternative: heading a minority government.
The SPD leadership are particularly anxious to avoid fresh elections and Mr Schulz, in a bid to save his skin, framed a new grand coalition as a chance to free Europe from the austerity era under Dr Merkel.
“The neoliberal spirit in Europe has to be ended in Europe and we can do this... with a paradigm shift in German EU policy,” said the ex-European parliament leader. “Without the SPD there will be no courageous impulse for Europe, it depends on us.”
And he promised to use his leverage, as Dr Merkel’s final option for power, to renew in office the Franco-German alliance after years of drift and face down the new authoritarian threat in the EU. “A right-wing wave is washing through Europe, look at the governments in Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest,” he said.
“This right-wing wave can be broken in Europe through a German government that fights for human rights, the rule of law and peace.”
In the end, delegates from Germany’s oldest party resigned themselves to their fate and, amid lukewarm applause, backed talks with the Merkel camp. The big cheers went to the defeated mavericks of the SPD youth wing.
They oppose a third grand coalition and want a term in opposition to revive their party’s flagging social democratic identity. They are now looking forward to winning the final round in Germany’s post-election marathon by urging a majority of the 450,000 SPD members to use their postal ballot to reject a final coalition agreement.
Mr Steve Hudson, head of the SPD anti-grand coalition campaign, said after Sunday’s vote: “Now the members have the chance to rescue their party.”