Merkel Speaks

Coalition talks: Time for the big guns

Inevitably, Angela Merkel, Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Christian Lindner will be called upon to break the deadlock. Source: PR

You always knew things would only kick into high gear once Angela Merkel got involved. As Germany’s chancellor for the past 12 years, she’ll no doubt be the key player once again if there is any hope for bringing together an unprecedented government coalition between her Christian Democrats, the pro-business Free Democrats and the left-leaning Greens.

These three parties couldn’t be much more different – and it has shown over the past 10 days since coalition talks formally began. Party officials have been working with little success to hash out a whole host of policy disagreements, ranging from retirement age to defense spending, to energy and immigration. Accompanying the talks has been a fair amount of sniping from various negotiators, each accusing the other of not being prepared for the compromises needed to make such a variable coalition work.

On Friday it was left to Ms. Merkel to smooth over the rough edges, meeting with the leaders of The Greens and Free Democrats to hold high-level talks for the first time. “If we go through the trouble and effort, I still think that we can tie the ends together in a manner that allows each partner to bring their identity to bear,” she told reporters in her first remarks about the negotiations since they began.

If that optimism is to hold true, she’ll need to unblock what Greens co-leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt described as “a whole range of big stumbling blocks.” Two have emerged this week as the trickiest: The environment, and immigration.

“Without limits to immigration, Jamaica will remain an island in the Carribbean and certainly not a coalition in Berlin.”

Alexander Dobrindt, Christian Social Union

It is rather predictable that climate and energy would prove to be a major sticking points in Germany’s negotiations to form a new “Jamaica” coalition government (named after the colors of flag that represent each political party). The Greens were always going to drive a hard bargain on their signature issue. And yet their vehemence has surprised the other parties.

On one issue in particular: The Greens are demanding an quick exit from coal. Their argument: Shutting down Germany’s 20 most polluting coal-fired power plants is the only way the country can meet its own climate goals, which involve cutting CO2 emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Such a drastic step is a no-go for both the Free Democrats and Ms. Merkel’s CDU, both of which worry about the effects for an economy that is already having trouble soaking up the country’s ambitious and costly transition away from nuclear energy and into renewables. For these parties, even the word “coal exit” has no place in the final coalition agreement that these three parties will have to present to their members. And yet both parties remain committed to Germany’s climate goals. The Greens cry hypocrisy, and have challenged their partners to propose an alternative.

It may seem like a small disagreement, but it’s one that could certainly torpedo the coalition talks. The Greens  have promised to put whatever coalition document the three parties agree to a vote of their party’s base at the end of this month. That base tends to lean further left even than the party’s leaders – especially on environmental issues.

That the environmental talks are hanging on a single word (Kohleausstieg in German, or coal exit) recalls the other major sticking point: dealing with immigration. Many conservatives, determined to close the right flank that was exposed by the strong showing of the far-right Alternative for Germany in September’s elections, have demanded a “cap” of 200,000 on the number of refugees allowed to enter Germany each year.

To keep the peace, Ms. Merkel has already been forced to concede the point within her party, albeit with a series of caveats that would allow the cap to be loosened in emergencies. But this, too, remains a major sticking point with the more left-leaning Greens, who are also calling for families to have the right be able to join refugees who are given win the right to claim asylum in Germany. Christian Lindner, head of the Free Democrats, complained this week that the Greens are simply not willing to accept the will of the majority of Germans.

“Without limits to immigration, Jamaica will remain an island in the Carribbean and certainly not a coalition in Berlin,” said Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the Christian Social Union, Ms. Merkel’s Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, which has pushed hard for a refugee cap. That may be true, unless Ms. Merkel can find a way to break the deadlock.

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. Various Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this story. To contact the authors:

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