Preliminary talks to form a new government in Berlin, following the collapse of a previous effort, underscore the degree to which the power of the leaders of Germany’s main political parties has eroded. Angela Merkel’s own weakness is more apparent than ever.
On Dec. 20, four men and two women met at the Reichstag in Berlin, the building where Germany’s parliament meets, for exploratory talks on the forming of a new government. It could have been a pleasant meeting. Martin Schulz, the head of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was celebrating his birthday — he turned 62 that day. Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, was looking forward to setting off on her annual vacation in Engadin, Switzerland, just two days later. The pre-Christmas quiet had already settled in over the capital city’s government quarter.
Still, it had been almost three months since the general election on Sept. 24, and after the first attempt to form a government failed in November, it was up to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the SPD to try to agree on whether they should form another coalition together. German voters in September had made it clear that they had grown tired of the “grand coalition,” but — as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had continually reminded party leaders — the country needed a government.
As such, the mood among those present on Dec. 20 was not nearly as tranquil as the streets outside. One day before, Schulz had shifted blame to the CSU for the fact that official coalition talks with the aim of forming a new government between the conservatives and the SPD would not be able to begin until the second week of January. The Bavarians, Schulz noted, wanted to wait until after a meeting of CSU Bundestag delegates. The new head of the CSU caucus, Alexander Dobrindt, angrily demanded to know how Schulz could make such a claim? He said the CSU was ready at any time for negotiations. Schulz countered that Dobrindt had misunderstood him.
In response, Merkel grabbed her mobile phone and read a news story with a quote from Schulz about the delay. Schulz looked at Merkel and Dobrindt and said, “People, that was not an attack on you. It was simply a statement of fact.”
It wasn’t a good start to talks aimed at forming a new coalition government. And conversations with those involved in the talks reveal just how great is the distrust between the three parties involved and between their leaders. And it’s not just a function of having grown tired of each other after governing in a coalition together for eight of the 12 years since 2005.
A Tense Atmosphere
On Sept. 24, conservatives had their second-worst showing in a national election ever, while the SPD had its worst. The result forced CSU party head Horst Seehofer to announce he would step down as governor of Bavaria, an office he is expected to hand over to his successor Markus Söder soon. At the beginning of February, he is to decide whether he wants to become a government minister in Berlin or if he wants to withdraw from politics entirely. In the CDU, the debate over the approaching post-Merkel period has also begun. And over in the SPD, many believe that Schulz’s days as head of the party are numbered.
On Jan. 3, Schulz, Merkel and Seehofer met at the national office of the Bavarian state government in Berlin for their first talks after the holidays. The meeting was supposed to be kept secret, but someone leaked it, as so often happens.
Schulz has said that he wants to see a different kind of negotiations from the ones in the fall that saw a possible government between Merkel’s conservatives, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens collapse. He doesn’t want any leaks and no interviews. Merkel and Seehofer also agreed, given their own experience in talks with the Greens and the FDP, where the atmosphere soured due to constant tweets about developments in the talks.
But Merkel could barely believe her eyes two days later when she looked at the mass-circulation Bild newspaper. In an interview, Schulz had complained that Germany is poorly governed. “In terms of education, health care, the care of senior citizens and many other areas, we are not a modern country,” he said. Sources within the conservatives say that Merkel responded by sending Schulz an angry text message. What was that all about? Making demands that he couldn’t even stick to himself? Within the SPD, sources dispute whether Merkel actually sent Schulz the text message. But what is clear is that the talks haven’t gotten off to the best possible start.
During the election campaign, Schulz repeatedly insisted that he would never enter into a government with Merkel. Immediately after the election, he then made an explicit promise that the SPD would not enter into another alliance with the conservatives. Then, after the first attempt to form a government collapsed in November, he said: “The voters have a right to expect parties to tell them what they will do and that those parties will then do what they say.”
A Paradoxical Situation
After all that, might the SPD now form a government with Merkel after all?
The SPD finds itself in a paradoxical situation at the moment. On the one hand, it is weaker than ever before, having garnered only 20.5 percent of votes in the election. At the same time, there’s a feeling within the party base that it can only enter into a government with Merkel’s conservatives if that coalition’s policies are absolutely in line with the SPD’s political beliefs.
When former SPD head Sigmar Gabriel wanted to lead his party into negotiations to form a coalition with Merkel in the fall of 2013, he pulled Merkel and CSU boss Seehofer aside at the very beginning. He told them that he needed an agreement on two points, without which talks couldn’t even proceed: the introduction of a previously non-existent national minimum wage in Germany and the right for Germans to retire at the age of 63. Merkel and Seehofer agreed, but in return they demanded that the SPD eschew any demands for higher taxes as well as its insistence that Germany introduce full-fledged same-sex marriage rights.
The approach now being pursued by Schulz and Andrea Nahles, who heads the SPD’s parliamentary group, is quite different. At a December meeting of the party’s national committee, they drew up a list of 11 points that the SPD considered “essential,” including the elimination of the country’s dual public-private health care system in favor of a single-payer scheme, a reform of the European Union and higher taxes on the rich. But even the word “essential” indicates that, even if the issue might be extremely important, it’s not indispensable. That might decrease the risk of disappointment within the SPD, but it also reduces pressure on the CDU and CSU to acquiesce.
On Monday, Jan. 8, Schulz met with Merkel and Seehofer at CDU headquarters in Berlin. The European Union was to be the focus of the day. It was the SPD party head’s wish to discuss the issue in a separate meeting of only the party chairs.
During the election, Schulz ceded virtually all statements on European policy to Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a decision that Schulz would later regret. After all, no issue is more closely associated with the former European Parliament president. And there is no area in which he has greater passion.
Merkel and Seehofer, at least in principle, had nothing against making European policy the first topic of the paper drafting the course to negotiate a government. The chancellor just wanted to ensure it didn’t go too deep into detail, thus robbing her of her freedom to approach the policies practically. But the commitments ultimately made in the paper do go pretty far. Germany has declared its preparedness to make more money available to the EU in Brussels, to create a new fund for member states in crisis and to increase the European Parliament’s influence.
Much pricklier is the issue of immigration. It soon became clear to all that this would be a key sticking point in negotiations. In the talks on immigration, Merkel’s CDU is being led by Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Hesse Governor Volker Bouffier; Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann and party General-Secretary Andreas Scheuer are negotiating for the CSU. Schulz, meanwhile, has appointed SPD deputy party head Ralf Stegner and Eva Högl, the deputy head of the parliamentary group, to head up talks on the issue.
But on Wednesday, Jan. 10, after days of discussion on the issue, it became clear to those involved that they were having trouble making progress on two issues: the right of refugees who have been granted asylum in Germany to bring their immediate family members to the country; and the upper limit on the number of refugees allowed to come to Germany each year, a key CSU demand. Conservatives wanted to anchor a 200,000-per-year cap on refugees in the preliminary coalition deal and they wanted to continue to block refugee family reunification. But the SPD rejected both positions.
Without any consensus in sight despite intense talks, an unusual step was taken: Hesse Governor Bouffier was tasked with drafting a paper laying out possible compromises that the party heads and parliamentary group leaders would then discuss. But when the paper was presented to the CSU’s Dobrindt, he quickly brushed it off and said more work needed to be done by the working group.
Then things took an interesting turn. The members of the working group met in party head Schulz’s office at SPD headquarters — but only five of them. Scheuer wasn’t among them, an omission that was very clearly intentional. The other negotiators from the CDU/CSU had likewise become annoyed by Scheuer’s aggressive tone. Even Herrmann, the Bavarian state interior minister from the CSU, played along.
Scheuer, though, got wind of the meeting — but by the time he joined the group, they had already produced a paper. Under the topic of family reunification, the range mentioned in the paper was between 15,000 and 20,000 people each year, far more than the CSU had wanted to concede. Stegner had the document printed out, but only five copies — not enough to give one to Scheuer. Scheuer demanded to know what Stegner was playing at, but the SPD deputy head replied that the paper was only intended to assist the lead negotiators anyway.
The CSU wasn’t pleased. After discussing things with Dobrindt, Scheuer put together his own paper, one that was largely similar to the first, with the exception of two controversial points. On those points, Scheuer simply inserted the CSU position.
It was an odd situation, with party leaders being presented with two different papers. Dobrindt said that he wasn’t prepared to talk about the Stegner paper at all, a position which infuriated Stegner. Even Bouffier felt that he had been hoodwinked by Dobrindt. Schulz proposed that Dobrindt and Stegner work out a joint proposal — but Dobrindt rebuffed the idea, drily noting that Stegner wasn’t on his level.
So Schulz had to take over. The SPD head withdrew with Dobrindt to once again talk about refugee policy, about upper limits and family reunification. At one point, Seehofer walked in to ask: “What’s taking you two so long?” Ultimately, Merkel joined the group as well.
There are competing versions for how things moved on from there. According to the CDU and CSU, Merkel proposed matching the number of migrants coming through family reunification to the 1,000 migrants Germany willingly takes from Greece and Italy each month. It was little more than a symbolic number, given that hardly any refugees are coming to Germany as a result of the EU’s so-called relocation scheme. But CDU/CSU representatives say that Schulz agreed, and also agreed that refugees should initially only receive assistance in kind and be required to remain in a specific location.
Stegner, though, later accused Scheuer of having smuggled these two elements into the paper in contradiction of prior agreements — a rather serious accusation, essentially branding Scheuer a cheat.
Ultimately, the party leaders reached agreement, but the incident wasn’t over yet. The agreement still had to be put to paper. In speaking to his party’s board of directors later, Seehofer said that he was sitting together with Merkel when the volume started rising outside. “Mr. Dobrindt and Mr. Stegner were in front of the door.” The two were in fact arguing loudly, unable to agree on what had just been agreed on. “You weren’t even there!” Dobrindt screamed. He then asked a party aid to pay close attention to what was being written down.
It was far from being the only conflict on that long Thursday night. The longer the negotiations lasted, the clearer it became that it had been a mistake on the part of the SPD not to have made a couple of non-negotiable demands right from the beginning. Schulz had managed to achieve some successes in the area of pension policy and daycare. But he was unable to come up with a signature issue, something that would make conservatives squirm.
That’s why Schulz kept demanding that improvements be made. He wanted to put an end to temporary employment contracts in situations where it is unnecessary. And he wanted to raise taxes on top earners, something that Merkel’s CDU was actually in favor of. But Seehofer vetoed the idea: His party faces state elections in Bavaria this year and it has ruled out any kind of tax increases.
Schulz also tried to fix pension payments at their current level through 2030, something that Merkel wasn’t prepared to agree to. She is concerned that an economic downturn could make such a pledge unaffordable. In the end, they agreed to fix them through 2025.
Shortly before the discussion came to an end early last Friday morning, the fight over upper limits for refugees erupted once again. For a moment, it looked as though the entire deal could fall through. The dispute focused on how to formulate the introduction of the 180,000 to 220,000 number, referring to the maximum number of migrants Germany would accept each year. The CSU insisted that the document read that the number “may not be exceeded.” Schulz was vehemently opposed, arguing that such a formulation made it look as though the fundamental right to asylum was being ignored.
If that passage isn’t removed, Schulz roared, “then we’re done here!”
“Then I guess we’re done here,” Dobrindt replied.
No Interest in New Elections
But the situation quickly calmed down again. Nobody was interested in new elections, so they agreed on a formulation that makes no sense at all. The three parties weren’t limiting migration to 220,000 per year, rather they “recognized” that this number won’t be exceeded. As though the number had been brought into existence by magic.
Merkel finally called together the conservatives’ entire negotiating team so that everybody could vote on the final paper. It was unanimously approved, but Bouffier, who had felt deceived by Dobrindt, took to the floor to vent his anger: “I have lived through a lot and have been part of numerous negotiations with our friends from the CSU,” he said. “But what I experienced here in the last few hours was unheard of. It won’t be forgotten.”
Bouffier didn’t need to mention the source of his anger. Stories about the highhandedness of the CSU negotiators Dobrindt and Scheuer had long since made the rounds. Some of his party allies understood Bouffier’s comments to mean that he didn’t want to take part in formal coalition negotiations should the parties involved agree to move ahead toward forming a coalition. Seehofer tried to placate him. “Volker, let’s talk about it in private,” he said.
It’s unclear whether it would help. Among both the conservatives and in the SPD, power structures have become fluid — that much became clear during the exploratory talks. Dobrindt sees his star rising within the CSU and no longer feels he has to pay Seehofer much mind. In the SPD, Andrea Nahles no longer wants to be the No. 2, with many conservatives saying — not without malice — that Nahles is the one to talk to when it comes to matters of policy. Schulz, the former EU politician, tends to embody nebulous diplomacy, they say.
Merkel, meanwhile, had to deal with Jens Spahn throughout the long night of negotiations, a man who seems to increasingly enjoy presenting himself as a rival to the chancellor. When conservatives gathered on Friday morning to discuss the results of the talks, Spahn said: “It’s like 2013, just with more money and less enthusiasm. I thought we would be doing something new.”
Several conservatives say that Merkel shot a scathing look at Spahn. But she refrained from saying anything. Later, Merkel apparently ranted to a small group of confidants about Spahn’s apparent urge to attract attention.
“You really should summon him to the Chancellery tomorrow and relieve him of his position” as state secretary in the Finance Ministry, said one of those present. And yet, it is very possible that Merkel will ultimately find no way to avoid naming Spahn to her next cabinet.