Merkel given reprieve as coalition partner votes not to split

The new, leftist leaders of Germany's Social Democrats offered Angela Merkel's struggling coalition a lifeline at a key congress on Friday but vowed to push for more action on climate protection and public investments.

Merkel given reprieve as coalition partner votes not to split
Photo: picture alliance/Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa

Delegates at the SPD conference in Berlin rejected a motion to immediately quit the coalition, averting a political crisis.

Instead, the overwhelming majority of the 600 delegates backed a plan by co-leaders Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken to open “discussions” with Merkel's CDU/CSU conservatives on demands that will determine the fate of the alliance.

“I was and remain sceptical about the future of this grand coalition,” Esken told the conference.

With our list of demands, “we are giving the coalition a realistic chance to continue. Nothing more, nothing less”.

Walter-Borjans and Esken, both fiercely critical of the SPD's role as junior coalition partner, were officially confirmed as the first male-female leadership duo in the party's 150-year history earlier at the congress.

That they didn't push to bring down the government will come as a relief for Merkel, who hopes to stay on as chancellor until her fourth and final term ends in 2021.

But the coalition remains on wobbly ground with many younger, leftwing SPDers preferring a clean break with the Merkel era.

Senior figures from Merkel's CDU and her Bavarian CSU sister party meanwhile have balked at the idea of renegotiating the hard-fought coalition agreement clinched after 2017's inconclusive general elections.

CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel's preferred successor, urged the SPD to get on with governing and show “a clear commitment to the common task”.

Black zero

Relatively unknown in Germany, former regional finance minister Walter-Borjans and lawmaker Esken were the surprise winners of the SPD's leadership race last month.

Seen as leftists within the SPD, they defeated finance minister Olaf Scholz and his running mate Klara Geywitz in what was interpreted as a rejection of the status quo following a slew of electoral setbacks.

In warmly received speeches at the Berlin gathering, the pair nicknamed “Eskabo” by German media laid out their vision to revive a party blunted by years of governing in Merkel's shadow.

They want some 450 billion euros ($497 billion) over the next decade to be invested in the country's schools and transport infrastructure, in digitalisation and in climate protection projects.

To achieve that, they said the government should ditch its “black zero” policy of maintaining a balanced budget and not racking up new debts — a CDU/CSU red line even as Europe's largest economy is stuttering.

“If the black zero stands in the way of a better future for our children, then it's wrong and has to go,” Walter-Borjans said.

To help close the gap between rich and poor, the new leaders want to raise the minimum wage from nine to 12 euros ($13) per hour.

They also want to rethink Germany's Hartz IV unemployment and welfare system — which was pushed through by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder but remains hugely controversial.

Accusing the government of not doing enough to tackle climate change, the pair are in favour of significantly increasing the price for CO2 emissions from the proposed 10 euros per tonne.

“The SPD must be prepared for compromises,” said Walter-Borjans.

“But they can't blur what we stand for.” 

'Fresh start'

Merkel's spokesman has said the veteran chancellor, in power for over 14 years, is “open” to talks about the demands.

“Despite all the gloomy predictions, this new start gives the SPD a chance to turn the corner,” the Rheinpfalz daily commented.

But if the SPD sees insufficient progress in the weeks ahead, it could still walk away — potentially triggering snap elections and hastening Merkel's exit.

Observers say voters may punish the SPD and CDU for sending them back to the polls early, while the far-right AfD and the surging Greens have the most to gain.

Der Spiegel weekly said fresh elections, in which the CDU and Greens are poised to come out on top, could reinvigorate a country wearied by years of Merkel compromises.

“Instead of Merkel's eternal end phase, a fresh start could be possible,” it said.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.