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16 January 2018

Germany’s coalition talks mark the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel’s legacy

As negotiations hang in the balance, the Chancellor is facing internal pressure. 

By Florian Ranft

It’s been nearly four months since the federal election and three parties of the previous government have agreed to talk with each other about renewing their coalition. Nothing more. That’s German efficiency in 2018.

There’s a long way to go from here, but it’s a start. There are a number of major stumbling blocks in the way of Germany getting a new government. German social democrats may have their Corbyn moment when they put the coalitions treaty to a membership vote, a positive outcome being far from certain.

Following 24 hours of intensive talks, the party leaders emerged as a harmonic trio in front of journalists at the SPD headquarters on Friday morning. It is said that the breakthrough for the deal they presented came over Currywurst and Skat, a very popular German card game.

There is something in it for everyone. The CDU and Angela Merkel gained a commitment for the continuation of a balanced budget and no tax increases. The CSU returns to Bavaria, where a crucial state election is set to take place in October, with a cap on numbers for refugee family reunification and annual refugee inflow at 180,000-220,000.

And the SPD and Martin Schulz receive minor concessions in social policy, entitlement to all-day schooling for children up to 10 years and a more generous basic pension for those that have worked for more than 35 years. The icing on the cake for the former President of the European Parliament is the announcement of a “new dawn for Europe”, which can be understood as a response to Macron’s ambitious EU reform agenda. This is a signal of openness to taking the EU forward in the absence of any red lines. Although the policy document also promises to strengthen civil society, democratic and liberal values and embrace new technologies, it is hardly a departure into a new age for German politics.  

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It remains to be seen whether a few tweaks in social policy and reforms in Europe are enough to please party members. Back in 2013, nearly 76 per cent of SPD members voted in favour of the coalition treaty with Angela Merkel’s conservatives, but two SDP branches have voted against this round of coalition talks in recent days.

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After the crushing defeat in September social democrats would have wished for a fresh start in opposition. But the collapse of negotiation talks between conservatives, liberals and greens (the ‘Jamaica’ coalition) in November put the SPD on the spot. Members might fear the role in government will spell the end for much-needed party renewal and the swing to the left.

It’s also the beginning of the end of Merkel’s legacy. There is a good chance that internal pressure over the weak election result and her refugee policy will rise and force her to step down half-way through the electoral period at the end of next year.

If the SPD were to rally itself and raise the stakes of the game, it could well score the the Skat-winning Grande Ouvert hand and bring down the coalition government, trigger elections and overtake the CDU/CSU. Without an obvious new leadership candidate, the conservatives will be catching their breath after Merkel is gone.

Florian Ranft is head of policy & international at Policy Network.

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