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Germany: Talks Go On, But Still No Deal

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Complex four-way talks to form a new German coalition government continued Sunday, with parties still failing to reach compromise on key questions. Neither head-to-head meetings between party leaders, nor smaller, policy-focused discussions saw a breakthrough, reported Handelsblatt Global (Germany).

As deadlines came and went, negotiations have seemed to intensify tensions between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). Faced with the possibility of new elections, strains within individual parties are also coming to the fore.

On policy questions, stubborn differences of opinion remain, above all on migration and climate change. The one thing all parties can so far agree on is that talks will end Sunday evening, agreement or no agreement.

The current discussions are not “official” coalition talks. Dialogue over the last month has aimed only to determine whether a coalition is possible, after federal elections held September 24 ended indecisively. If a preliminary agreement is made today, formal talks will begin to draw up a formal program for government.

Without an agreement, snap elections are a possibility, but these may produce an outcome just as inconclusive as the last. Alternatively, Angela Merkel’s CDU may attempt to form a minority government with just one of the negotiating parties, possibly the Green party.

All parties fear that a failure to reach agreement could boost support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which saw a surge in support in September’s elections.

But the leader of the center-left Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, confirmed Sunday that his party would not continue the current “grand coalition” government with the CDU, no matter what the outcome of talks. “Voters have rejected the current coalition,” he said.

With Ms. Merkel keen to clinch a historic fourth term in office, the Christian Democrat deputy chair, Julia Klöckner, called Sunday afternoon for one last push to find agreement: “We have to look at the alternatives, and then all pull ourselves together and work something out.”

Relations between party representatives are tense, with mutual accusations of lack of trust, personal attacks and leaks to the press. Christian Democrats and Free Democrats were particularly angered by remarks by lead Green negotiator Jürgen Trittin in a German Sunday newspaper, in which he said all concessions had come on the Green side. “He’s just shooting the whole thing down. You can’t work like that,” said one FDP negotiator.

Saturday’s talks focused on contentious issues: the environment and migration. In the election campaign and since, the Bavarian CSU has insisted on an annual upper limit of 200,000 for asylum seekers. The Greens are opposed to any hard limit, but are said to be prepared to acknowledge the figure as a non-binding target. But they are insisting on the right of existing refugees to bring family members to Germany. Anything else would be “inhuman,” said Mr. Trittin. The CSU, fearful of leaking support to the AfD, are holding to their hard line.

The environment is another sticking point, with the Greens looking to force an early end to coal-fired power stations, but other parties are reluctant to make public targets, for fear of the negative impact on coal-mining regions.

Underlying policy differences are anxieties in all parties about their position in Germany’s shifting political landscape, exacerbated by previous bad blood. The FDP was burned by its last experience of coalition with Ms. Merkel, from 2009 to 2013, and wants cast-iron promises on its core issues of education and tax reform.

There are profound cultural differences between the Greens and the culturally conservative CSU. But both parties have their own internal tensions. For the environmentalists, the pressures of negotiation have brought to the fore old strains between the party’s “realist” wing and its more left-wing elements.

The Bavarian CSU saw its support plummet to below 40 percent in September’s general election: frightening levels for a party which sees itself as a natural party of regional government. State elections next year in Bavaria promise to be a crucial test. With leader Horst Seehofer profoundly weakened, possible successors are using coalition talks to stake the ground for their own ambitions.

Although Ms. Merkel’s CDU arguably has most to gain from successful coalition talks, that party also has internal tensions in the wake of a deeply disappointing election. Ms. Merkel’s authority is not what it once was. Although her leadership is not in question, senior figures within the party have called for deeper reflection on the party’s future direction, and an “overhaul in personnel.”

With so much antagonism in the mix, some observers wonder whether a CDU-CSU-Green-FDP coalition can ever be coherent, even if a program can be worked out. But Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called for optimism, reminding all sides of their responsibilities. There was no reason for “panicky talk about new elections,” he said in a newspaper interview: “If negotiations have to be tough on the big questions, that isn’t necessarily a blow to democracy.”

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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