By Paul Carrel
Fault lines are emerging in Germany’s new government before ministers have even held their first cabinet meeting, with tensions over the sequencing and extent of reforms already pulling at the fragile coalition
Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s conservatives only turned to the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) to prolong their ‘grand coalition’ out of desperation after talks on a three-way alliance with two smaller parties collapsed last November.
Their subsequent 177-page coalition deal, clinched last month after difficult negotiations, is peppered with the phrase “We want to”, leaving plenty of leeway for disagreements over competing priorities.
“Pensions, healthcare, Europe and asylum and migration policy are all areas where there are explosives built into the coalition agreement,” Detlef Seif, deputy EU spokesman for Merkel’s conservative parliamentary bloc, told Reuters.
With more than five months gone since September’s election, Merkel is keenly aware that voters expect the new government – which takes office on Wednesday – to address their economic, social and security concerns quickly.
“With our coalition agreement, we have a book full of assignments and tasks to implement,” she said on Monday.
The pressure is on for both camps to deliver: the inclusion in the coalition deal of a clause that envisages a review of the government’s progress after two years gives each the opportunity to leave the ruling alliance then if it is not working for them.
The priority the government gives to different reforms set out in the coalition deal, the extent to which it implements them, and the personnel involved promise a cocktail of pressures that Merkel will need all her political skill to balance.
The SPD only agreed to ally with Merkel after promising a list of distinctive policies to secure the approval of party members, many of whom wanted the SPD to regroup in opposition after voters gave it no credit for the last four years of governing under Merkel.
It wants in particular to move ahead with social reforms – increased child benefit and changes in health insurance and education spending.
The coalition agreement foresees 12 billion euros ($15 billion) of investment in family, child and social measures, a stabilisation in pensions, curbs on employers’ use of fixed-term contracts and a review of how healthcare is funded.
SPD leaders know they need some quick wins. One recent poll had the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) surpassing the SPD for the first time in a national survey to become the second-strongest party.
However, senior members of Merkel’s conservative bloc – her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) – feel Social Democrat policies got too high a priority in the last government.
Its first year saw the passage of a flagship pension reform to lower the retirement age and legislation to introduce a national minimum wage – both key SPD projects.
This time, the conservatives’ parliamentary leader, Volker Kauder, says his group will not allow that to happen again.
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