SPD votes Angela Merkel finally has a coalition partner for negotiations

Germany's center-left Social Democrats have agreed to take up coalition talks with Angela Merkel. But it will still be months before Europe's largest economy actually has a government in place.
A plea for pragmatism from SPD leader Martin Schulz, the man who didn't want a grand coalition.

Germany’s political class and leaders in many neighboring European capitals are breathing a sigh of relief, at least for now. The country’s Social Democrats on Sunday agreed to enter into formal coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance. The move marks a major step forward to ending the political deadlock in Europe’s largest economy, which has been without a government since September’s elections.

Following an emotional debate that seemed to split much of the party’s membership, delegates narrowly voted 362-279 in favor of a blueprint haggled out last week for another so-called grand coalition between the SPD, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union.

The hard work, however, is only just beginning. Sunday’s vote gave the green light for party leaders to turn last week's blueprint into a full coalition agreement. That will likely involve months more of negotiations. And once a formal deal is in place, the SPD’s full membership – more than 400,000 around the country – will hold another vote on whether to actually enter into government.

The onus now falls to SPD party leader Martin Schulz, a man who just three months ago had vowed to lead his party into opposition following a huge defeat for his party in September’s elections. But the failure of coalition talks between Ms. Merkel and two other smaller parties, the Free Democrats and Greens, forced the SPD into a rethink.

We shouldn’t govern at all costs, but we also shouldn’t say we won’t govern at all costs. Martin Schulz, SPD leader

Mr. Schulz said that all of Germany – and much of Europe – was watching to see what his party would do on Sunday. “We shouldn’t govern at all costs, but we also shouldn’t say we won’t govern at all costs,” Mr. Schulz said in a final speech before the party vote. He promised to keep working to improve the coalition outline that was agreed last week.

But the SPD leader was probably not the one who wound up convincing his skeptical members. Instead it was Andrea Nahles, the party's parliamentary leader and former labor minister, who gave a rousing and emotional speech stressing the leadership's determination to push its own agenda in the coalition talks. "We will negotiate until the other side starts squealing," she vowed, shouting at the top of her voice ahead of the vote.

Still, it is hardly a given that the party's base will vote in favor of a final coalition agreement, with many Germans demanding change: A recent poll from public broadcaster ARD showed that 52 percent of the respondents didn't think another grand coalition was a good idea. The SPD's debate before Sunday's vote exposed a wide generational gap in the center-left party, as younger members have opposed the party joining what would be the third grand coalition in 12 years of Angela Merkel, who is vying for her fourth term.

One of the most prominent critics of another four years of governing under the wings of Ms. Merkel is Kevin Kühnert, the head of the SPD's youth wing, the Jusos. In the run-up to the Sunday vote, Mr. Kühnert crisscrossed Germany, leading an internal campaign against a renewal of the alliance. He warned delegates of being trapped in an "endless-loop" of coalitions under the chancellor. "All of this has cost us trust and trust doesn't fall from heaven," he said.

Some see the articulate 28-year-old Jusos leader, whose speech drew enthusiastic applause compared to the lukewarm reception of Mr. Schulz's, as a potential candidate to lead the party. In other words, the SPD's establishment wing may have won a key battle, but it has yet to win the war. In an interview with the public broadcaster ZDF, Mr. Schulz admitted the "ja" to enter into formal talks has created deep battle lines. "The party is divided - there's no doubt about that," he said.

Acting Chancellor Angela Merkel said she welcomed the SPD's decision to help form a stable government. Her conservative alliance, she added, would meet on Monday to discuss its own course for the coalition talks. While Ms. Merkel noted her intention to follow the 28-page policy paper agreed with the SPD in exploratory talks, Mr. Schulz hinted of possible changes to the agreed blueprint and heated debate ahead. "Exploratory talks aren't final coalition talks," he said.

If Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz do eventually agree, which observers have said could take until Easter, the new coalition will likely be weaker than their previous one and more easy to attack. The CDU, CSU and SPD all achieved postwar record low results in September's federal election, resulting in a loss of more than 100 seats in parliament between them. And they will face four opposition parties in the Bundestag instead of just two. Among them is the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which would become the largest opposition party. That was something that the SPD leader was keen to avoid.

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in Berlin. John Blau is a senior editor for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]