Germany’s three would-be coalition partners went deep into overtime in talks yesterday as they sought enough common ground in climate and migration policy to form a government and stave off the prospect of a repeat election.
Incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel’s only realistic hope of securing a fourth term after suffering losses in September’s election is an awkward three-way conservative-liberal-Green alliance.
But after four weeks of talks, the parties remained far apart as they adjourned for the night.
The biggest sticking points are climate change, where the Greens want emissions cuts that the other parties see as economically ruinous, and immigration, where Merkel’s arch-conservative allies in Bavaria insist on stricter rules.
With the pro-business, tax-cutting Free Democrat (FDP) liberals freshly returned to parliament after four years in the wilderness, and the Greens out of office for 12 years, neither is keen to give ground.
A self-imposed deadline of Thursday for wrapping up exploratory talks and starting formal coalition negotiations passed without agreement, forcing the conservatives to promise further concessions on emissions cuts to the Greens.
FDP leader Christian Lindner said the talks now had to be wrapped up by 1700 GMT today (Sunday).
However, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a former foreign minister who now plays an apolitical role, said that brinkmanship was to be expected.
“Before the formal talks start, there are always attempts by parties to drive prices up,” he told the weekly Welt am Sonntag. “What we’ve seen in the past weeks isn’t so different from previous coalition negotiations.”
Greens chairwoman Simone Peter said much that had earlier been agreed on emissions policy had been undone, without giving details.
Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) faces regional state elections next year, and fears the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) could unseat it after 60 years if it fails to secure tough immigration rules – which are anathema to the left-leaning Greens.
Among the CSU’s demands are a cap of 200,000 per year on the number of refugees Germany will take, and an end to the practice of allowing successful asylum-seekers to bring their immediate families to join them.
“There is the will to ensure that this political task succeeds, but it cannot succeed at any price,” warned Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the CSU, the Bavarian party allied with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), after arriving for the talks.
All parties are anxious to avoid a repeat election, which they fear could boost the AfD, which surged into parliament for the first time in September’s national election.
But the heterogeneous three-way coalition, made necessary after the conservatives and the centre-left suffered punishing election losses, is untested at national level.
Merkel, no longer deemed invincible after her poor election result, “now faces the most difficult task of her leadership so far,” judged the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.
Hours after a 15-hour red-eye meeting ended around 4am on Friday, Merkel, the veteran of countless all-night EU summits, said that “the task of forming a government for Germany is so important that the effort is worthwhile”.
Horst Seehofer, the embattled leader of the CSU, said that “we have the goal of finishing by Sunday” because the German people had the right to know whether or not a new government could be formed.
Martin Schulz of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) – Merkel’s former junior coalition partner, which went into opposition after a stinging election loss – re-emerged to criticise the painful process.
He charged that the four parties were searching for the “lowest common denominator” in an atmosphere of “maximum mutual distrust”, led by Merkel, whom he labelled the “world champion in vagueness”.
Schulz also charged that the odd alliance would diminish Germany’s role in the EU and contribute to the “paralysis of Europe”.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented that, despite the hurdles, “Merkel can’t afford to fail, because the SPD ... won’t come to her rescue again”.
The smaller parties, it said, “are already fighting at the expense of the chancellor, who won’t necessarily get the credit if the talks succeed, but who will certainly be blamed if this experiment fails”.
Fresh elections would heap pressure on all parties, the paper added, but especially on the chancellor “because then Merkel’s star will fade even more quickly, maybe even for good”.
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