SPD talks

Germany edges closer to a coalition deal

Merkel. Coalition talks, SPD
Prelude to a deal? Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with SPD leader Martin Schulz in parliament. Source: Reuters

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday took the first tentative steps toward forming a “grand coalition” government with her chief rivals, the Social Democratic Party. But just how difficult that process is likely to be was illustrated when an SPD leader accused Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of a “massive breach of trust” over a pressing environmental issue.

“These are very special times,” the chancellor declared after a meeting of her party board on Monday. “We are ready to start discussions with the SPD,” she said, adding that Germany needed to form a government soon because of the international challenges facing the country.

The SPD leader, Martin Schulz, also said he was ready to hold coalition talks with Ms. Merkel, beginning with a meeting on Thursday at the offices of President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who pressured both sides to meet. Although Mr. Schulz has not renounced his pledge to avoid another coalition after suffering huge losses in the national elections Sept. 24, he announced on Monday that he expected to continue to meet with the Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance after Thursday’s talks and said “no option is off the table.”

“When the big ones get together, then radical parties become strong.”

Malu Dreyer, prime minister, Rhineland-Palatinate

Financial markets and European politicians have breathed a sigh of relief after it became clear that another grand coalition may be in the works. The alternatives would be a minority government of the Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, or new elections. The former could be easily brought down by a vote of no confidence, while the latter would keep Germany — and the European Union — paralyzed for months.

Following the election, in which the SPD went from 25.7 percent of the votes to just 20.5 percent, Mr. Schulz said he was leading the SPD into opposition to rebuild its traditional popularity with the German working class. Many of these voters had defected to the far-right, anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD. The CDU and SPD had governed in coalition since the last election in 2013 and still form a caretaker government.

Ms. Merkel said Monday that her party is prepared to compromise with the SPD in the talks, adding that the she will negotiate “seriously, in a committed, honest way and with a view to successful discussions.” She mentioned that she would offer ideas on solving a housing shortage in the cities and helping rural areas cope with a sense of abandonment as two areas where the parties could see common ground.

But before the day was out, the bad blood between the parties erupted into the open. SPD parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles accused the CDU of a “massive breach of trust” for casting the deciding vote in a European Union committee to approve the use of the pesticide glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has labeled a potential cause of cancer.

An SPD politician, Barbara Hendricks, who is the caretaker minister of the environment, complained that she had told the country’s agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, a CSU politician, that she opposed the extension for glyphosate and that the lack of agreement meant that Germany should have abstained on the vote rather than voting yes. “Anyone who is interested in building a dialogue of trust cannot behave like this,” Ms. Hendricks said in a reference to the coalition talks about to get underway.

Ms. Merkel is meeting with the SPD after eight weeks of talks with two smaller parties broke down, over issues such as immigration, taxation, and energy policy.

CDU leaders said they would offer compromises reached in those earlier coalition talks to the SPD leadership. They include a reduction in retirement contributions for workers and an increase in “kindergeld,” the money the state pays parents of young children to help pay for their childcare expenses.

But many in the SPD are still dubious about the benefits of forming another coalition government. Malu Dreyer, prime minister of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, told Handelsblatt that she believed another grand coalition between the two strongest parties was not good for Germany. “When the big ones get together, then radical parties become strong,” she said pointing to the strength of the far-right AfD, which won 12.6 percent of the vote in the election, becoming the third-largest party and entering parliament for the first time.

Handelsblatt reporters Daniel Delhaes, Martin Greive Till Hoppe, and Klaus Stratmann contributed to this report. Handelsblatt Global editor Charles Wallace adapted this story into English. To contact the author: c.wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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