Game over: Germany's coalition talks fail after four weeks. Photo: Pixabay

German coalition talks collapse despite progress on climate and energy

After almost five weeks of deliberations, the pro-business Free Democratic Party has pulled the plug on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a coalition government made up of her conservative CDU/CSU alliance, the Greens and the FDP. Migration was ultimately the most contentious issue, with politicians insisting disagreements over energy and climate policy were not the ultimate reason for the collapse. The Greens and CSU accused the FDP of playing tactical games. SPD head Martin Schulz reiterated that his party would not enter another grand coalition – making a minority government or new elections realistic options. [Update adds Merkel comments on fresh elections.]

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) has pulled out of talks with the conservative CDU/CSU and the Green Party to form a new coalition government, despite progress on controversial energy and climate policy issues.

The talks’ collapse puts the Germany into unchartered political waters. “It is better not to govern than to govern badly,” FDP head Christian Lindner said, after he and his team walked out of negotiations shortly before midnight on Sunday. “The four discussion partners have no common vision for the modernisation of the country, and lack a common basis of trust.”

Extending deadline after deadline, negotiators over the weekend failed to reach tentative agreements on migration, climate, energy, transport and numerous other topics, in what so far have only been exploratory talks to form the next government. [Read the full story by the Clean Energy Wire here.]

The elections had left a so-called Jamaica coalition – named for the three parties’ colours that match those of the Jamaican flag – as the only possible majority government, after the Social Democrats ruled out another coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc.

“It is a day of deep reflection on how to go forward in Germany,” Merkel told reporters. “As acting chancellor, I will do everything to ensure this country is well managed in the difficult weeks to come.”

Migration last sticking point – CDU secretary general

Migration has been a “central topic” of the talks, Merkel said, but one on which her party’s differences with the FDP had “not been substantial”.

“We believe we could have found a solution with the Greens in this area too,” Merkel added.

CDU secretary general Peter Tauber said compromise had been reached in most areas. “The last real contentious point was the right for refugees’ families to reunite in Germany, and the Greens had signalled they were ready for a compromise here.”

Green Party and CSU leaders also said finding an agreement would have been possible, had the FDP not ended talks.

Greens Party co-chair Cem Özdemir said, “We were ready to find a compromise until the very end and would have accepted making concessions where in fact no further concessions were possible. But that requires all partners to be ready to do that, and one partner wasn’t.”

Lack of trust

Justifying his party’s decision to end talks, FDP head Lindner said the four parties had not been able to find a common basis for trust. “A basis for trust and a common idea would be the preconditions for stable governing,” he said.  

German political scientist Oskar Niedermayer said he thinks all participants had been waiting for “one of the others to pull the plug” since the beginning of the weekend, he told German public broadcaster ARD in an interview, “so as to be able to put the blame on them.” Ha added that was already happening, with both the Green Party and the CSU insisting compromise would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the FDP.

Christian Democratic member of parliament Joachim Pfeiffer said he had the impression that questions over individual issues had not been at the core of the pro-business FDP’s decision to pull out. “It was about psychology and also about a lack of will to reach an agreement,” Pfeiffer told energy professionals at the congress of the German Energy Agency dena in Berlin.

Andrea Römmele, political scientist at Hertie School of Governance, said “it has been clear from the start that the FDP was the least keen to take on power. They were glad to return to parliament and get rid of the image to want power at all costs. They want to stand for their views.”

The way forward: New elections or a minority government?

What will happen next is unclear, but Angela Merkel will stay in office as head of the current CDU-SPD government, which will carry out the official duties until a new cabinet is sworn in.

“An acting government is by no means a government without the ability to take action,” government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said the morning after talks ended.

If the Social Democrats continue to reject a new “grand coalition”, the only realistic options seem a minority government or new elections. It would be the first time either of things has happened in post-war Germany. [Find out more in this CLEW factsheet.]

Germany’s federal parliament cannot dissolve itself to initiate new elections. The German constitution stipulates that Bundestag members must first attempt to elect a new chancellor with an absolute majority, before the German president can either name a chancellor to lead a minority government, or dissolve parliament and call new elections.

“I expect Merkel to stand for election as chancellor in the Bundestag, and the German president will then dissolve the parliament after a third ballot,” political scientist Niedermayer said. New elections would then have to take place within 60 days.

Merkel herself told public broadcaster ARD that she prefered new elections over a minority government. She added that she was ready to stand again in the case of a fresh vote.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on all parties to pause for a moment. Domestically and outside Germany, there would be a lot of irritation and worries, should “the political forces in Europe’s largest and economically strongest country not live up to their responsibility,” he said in a televised speech. Building a new government was not a responsibility that could simply be handed back to citizens, he said, adding he would talk to party leaders in the coming days.

The CDU could discuss replacing Merkel’s as party leader, Niedermayer said, but there was still no credible alternative: “Within the CDU, there is no one who could just take over within the coming weeks.” Her approval ratings continue to be far higher than those of anyone in her party. According to media reports, Merkel received the backing by the CDU leadership in a conference call on Monday morning.

“It’s all speculation at the moment,” Greens’ Özdemir said, adding that the first step for his party was to analyse what has happened. He added that the focus now was on the concerns of citizens, industry, and neighbouring countries. “Germany used to be the haven of stability […] and one party has now decided that short-term political interests are more important than the interests of the country.”

Talks didn’t collapse over climate and energy – politicians

Disagreements over energy and climate policy were not ultimately responsible for the collapse of coalition talks, representatives of three of the parties involved said at the dena congress in Berlin.

“We have debated a lot – energy and climate have been problematic,” said Green member of parliament Oliver Krischer, part of the party’s negotiation team. “But we had reached a point where there was a lot of movement.”

Free Democrat Henner Schmidt (not part of the party’s negotiation team), agreed, saying energy and climate were not what brought talks to an end, and that overall atmosphere seemed to have been more of an issue. 

At the same event, Vattenfall CEO Tuomo Hatakka said the German energy transition would continue, regardless of which parties form the country’s next government.

All major political parties apart from the far-right AfD profess support for Germany’s shift from fossil fuel and nuclear power to a renewables-based energy system. But the level of ambition for the project will depend on the next coalition.

Late last week, the parties were struggling to find common ground on climate policy, with lignite a central sticking point. An offer by Merkel’s conservatives to cut coal-fired power production by 7 gigawatts (GW) by 2020 was rejected by the Green Party. The Conservatives and FDP initially offered a phase-out of 3 to 5 GW coal capacity, whereas the Greens said 8 to 10 GW were necessary to meet Germany's 2020 emission-reduction targets.

“Climate is still party politics” – analyst

Arne Jungjohann, energy analyst and a consultant for the German Green Party, said the talks’ failure dispelled the myth that all German parties are truly committed to fighting climate change – and that the FDP in particular was not ready to agree on robust policies for reaching existing climate targets.

“Climate is still party politics,” Jungjohann told the Clean Energy Wire. However, the talks had brought Greens and Conservatives closer together. Both “left their comfort zone to find compromises, also on coal and climate. This lays a foundation for future cooperation,” Jungjohann said.

Parts of the business community have voiced support of the FDP’s decision to pull out of the potential coalition.

“Obviously, the chemistry between the partners wasn’t good enough to find a common political vision for Germany,” the German Chemical Industry Assotiation VCI’s managing director Utz Tillmann said in a statement. “That is regrettable. But to stand up for political convictions instead of vague solutions deserves the same respect as the courage to compromise.” 

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