Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives finally reached an agreement on Thursday to start coalition talks with their Social Democratic rivals next week. But any euphoria is likely to be tempered by persistent disagreements between and within the parties.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) know that this alliance will not be one born of love. The following weeks will see difficult negotiations, and both sides will undoubtedly have to make painful compromises. The exploratory talks were already confrontational, but the real grappling is probably yet to come.
In any case, the SPD will most likely get the least joy out of any agreement. Entering into another so-called grand coalition with conservatives, like the one that governed Germany from 2005 to 2009, is a hard pill to swallow. Hannelore Kraft, the SPD's deputy head and governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, stressed on Thursday evening that the SPD didn't want to let itself be pigeonholed as a junior partner in any possible new government. "We made it clear on essential points where things are headed," she said, according to the public broadcaster ZDF.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel was markedly more matter-of-fact when he briefly spoke to reporters late Thursday afternoon. "We believe we can find a common foundation," he said. Then he added that the SPD's negotiating group had "unanimously" decided to recommend that the party enter talks with conservatives.
Gabriel's note about unanimity was not extraneous. The SPD is scheduled to hold a party convention on Sunday at which leaders hope the rank and file will sign off on moving forward with coalition talks. But there is major opposition to forming another grand coalition among party members. To counter any resistance, it will be crucial for Gabriel and the rest of the leadership team to present a united front. Indeed, although unlikely, a rejection of the plan would be a vote of no confidence in the entire party leadership.
In any case, Sunday's meeting will probably involve some horn-locking over the key points that would make a coalition agreement acceptable and how the negotiation team should prioritize its tasks. It also remains unclear what the makeup of this team should look like.
Give and Take
The conservatives, on the other hand, need not worry about such questions. The CDU and the CSU might follow whatever line is set by Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer, the respective party leaders, even though there is little enthusiasm within conservative ranks to enter another grand coalition. But after the environmentalist Green Party quashed talk of teaming up with conservatives earlier in the week, the SPD offers the last chance of forming a majority government. Still, this is an option that Chancellor Merkel can deal with. The fact that the conservatives are only five seats short of having a majority in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, means that she can steer the ship with relative ease.
That doesn't mean that her conservatives won't have to make a few difficult compromises, though. Seehofer, whose CSU has presented the most obstacles to compromise, has already announced his intention to yield ground on some key SPD goals, such as introducing a comprehensive minimum wage, allowing dual citizenship and easing immigration restrictions related to refugees. But the SPD won't get concessions without paying a price, such as having to abandon efforts to raise taxes and repeal benefits for stay-at-home parents.
There will be plenty of other things to wrangle over during negotiations, too. Particularly contentious will be talks over energy policies (such as how much consumers should subsidize the planned switch to renewable energies) and the future of the health insurance regime (such as whether to continue with the parallel public and private systems).
Thursday's announcements answered the question of whether both sides are willing to give talks a chance. But things will get more complicated in the coming days. A number of key issues need to be ironed out: Times and venues for the talks must be selected, and both sides will have to agree on how to structure the meetings and the key working groups.
Talks could already get underway as soon as next Wednesday, a day after the new Bundestag assembles for its first session.