Germany’s Schulz asks SPD to approve Merkel government talks

Martin Schulz was formerly president of the European Parliament. — Reuters pic
Martin Schulz was formerly president of the European Parliament. — Reuters pic

BERLIN, Dec 7 — The chief of Germany’s Social Democrats pleaded with his party today to allow him to start exploratory talks on joining or backing Chancellor Angela Merkel in a government, promising to push key demands especially on strengthening the EU.

Ten weeks after inconclusive elections left German politics in a stalemate, Martin Schulz urged his divided centre-left SPD to vote in favour of launching open-ended talks that could lead them to join Merkel in another “grand coalition” or tolerate a minority government.

“We don’t have to govern at any price, but we must not reject governing at all cost either,” Schulz told a Berlin congress of 600 delegates, many of whom loathe the idea of once more governing in Merkel’s shadow as the SPD has for the past four years.

Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, vowed to extract a high price if the SPD supports Merkel for a fourth term from early 2018 at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.

He demanded Berlin join French President Emmanuel Macron and other proponents of major EU reforms in boosting the bloc and its currency union, including by raising investment and giving the eurozone a common finance minister and budget.

‘US of Europe’

In his hour-long speech, Schulz made a passionate call for a “United States of Europe” by 2025, which will mark the 100th anniversary of an SPD meeting that first proposed such a federal union.

“Europe is our life insurance,” said Schulz. “It is the only chance we have to keep up with the other great regions of the world.”

Schulz said only a more united EU could meet major challenges such as combating climate change, managing mass migration or stopping multinational companies from dodging taxes.

He argued that only a strengthened EU would stop the advance of right-wing nationalists, citing gains they had made in Germany as well as Austria, Denmark, Finland, France and the Netherlands.

“If we don’t change course, if we don’t strengthen Europe in very practical and concrete ways, then these forces will win,” he warned, condemning the “right-wing radicals and pitiful German nationalists” of the country’s far-right AfD party.

‘Crisis of trust’

For Schulz, a willingness to sound out a power pact with Merkel represents a U-turn after he repeatedly vowed to go into opposition following his party’s dismal showing in the September 24 elections.

Schulz only relented after Merkel’s talks with two smaller parties collapsed just over two weeks ago, sparking heightened political uncertainty.

At the start of the three-day SPD congress, Schulz faced some fierce opposition from the party’s youth wing, which bitterly rejects the humiliating option of the SPD again playing second fiddle in a grand coalition.

Their leader, Kevin Kuehnert, warned that, after four election defeats in a row, joining another grand coalition would threaten the very existence of the party, and that the leadership’s backflip had sparked “a deep crisis of trust” at the base.

Michael Broening of the SPD-linked Friedrich Ebert Foundation said the Social Democrats “once again find themselves in a Catch-22 situation”.

“The party fears new elections, loathes another grand coalition, but still does not want to be seen as obstructionist naysayers shying away from civic responsibility,” Broening said.

Schulz became the SPD’s top candidate a year ago when the party’s poll ratings briefly shot up some 10 percentage points. But he met the fate of Merkel’s previous challengers, with a campaign losing steam amid a string of regional poll defeats.

In the September general election, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) syphoned millions of votes from all mainstream parties, the SPD scored just under 21 percent, its worst showing since World War II.

Schulz apologised for the poor result but said he could not “turn back the clock”, vowing to drive a rejuvenation of the SPD so “we can do a better job”.

Whatever the outcome of any eventual talks with Merkel, it will have to satisfy the SPD party base, because members will ultimately vote to approve or scrap any coalition agreement. — AFP

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