What the decision means for Merkel, Schulz and Europe.
Martin Schulz, leader of Germany's social democratic SPD party, seen at his party's extraordinary congress in Bonn, Germany on January 21, 2018, has suffered one setback after another
Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) voted Sunday to pursue coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s center-right alliance in a too-close-for-comfort convention ballot that had much of the country (not to mention the EU) on tenterhooks.
The margin of victory — 362 in favor versus 279 against — looked more impressive from afar than it did in the room.
Seasoned convention-goers are used to lopsided votes. A simple show of hands is usually enough to determine a winner. Not Sunday. The first round made it clear the vote was too close to call, requiring a head count. The convention hall in Bonn fell silent for several nervous minutes as party officials tallied the votes.
A leadership initiative supported by less than 90 percent can be considered a rebuke at such a gathering. Sunday’s 56 percent “Yes” vote was more like a slap across the face.
The SPD advertised Sunday’s meeting as a public display of its democratic ideals. It felt more like an awkward, five-hour group therapy session.
Still, there’s no denying the convention will be remembered a key moment in German politics, one with far-reaching repercussions.
Here are five takeaways from the vote:
1. Long live the ‘GroKo’
In all likelihood, a new “grand coalition” between the two biggest parties, known as “GroKo” in the German vernacular, will come to pass. At this point, it would take a substantial shock to derail it. Germans have already waited four months since election day to get this far. It will probably take another two months to finalize the deal. A collapse of the talks at this stage would be met with a thrashing at the ballot box for both sides, which are still reeling from historic losses the last time around. Yes, the SPD membership still has to give its OK to a final deal. But it’s worth remembering the average age of the SPD’s 440,000 members is 60. It’s a risk-averse bunch. The GroKo is likely to throw this crowd another welfare bone in the coming weeks to keep them sweet.
2. Angela rises from the ashes
Angela Merkel’s detractors often describe her as a closet socialist so it might be fitting that her political future as chancellor was decided not by her Christian Democrats, but by the SPD. Sunday’s decision was as much a vote on Merkel as it was on the SPD’s future. It would appear they are intertwined. Truth be told, many Social Democrats are quite comfortable with Merkel, despite the fact that she’s coopted many of their policies. Merkel might still be in her political twilight, but her future should be measured in years, not days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during a press conference at the headquarters of her Christian Democratic Party in Berlin on January 21, 2018 | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images
3. Martin Schulz is the SPD’s tallest dwarf
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, a leader of the Bavarian wing of Merkel’s bloc called on SPD leader Schulz to bring his party’s “dwarf uprising” under control, a reference to the strong resistance to a GroKo from the party’s rank-and-file. Schulz’s failure to do so further chips away at his credibility. His rambling speech on Sunday landed with a dud. His central message — that a new general election would be even worse than another GroKo — was less than inspiring. The former European Parliament president was styled as his party’s savior when he took over last year. Since then, he’s suffered one setback after another, including leading his party to its worst-ever election result. Many in the SPD now believe the decades Schulz spent toiling in obscurity in Brussels left him ill-prepared for the rough-and-tumble of domestic politics. His days atop the SPD are likely numbered.
4. The SPD is a house divided
Two stars emerged during Sunday’s convention: Andrea Nahles, the party’s parliamentary leader, and Kevin Kühnert, the head the SPD’s youth wing, known as the Jusos. Both delivered impressive speeches that won over the room. Yet they were advocating different sides of the argument. Some observers are convinced the “No” camp would have won, were it not for Nahles’ passionate appeal shortly before the vote. And without Kühnert’s tireless campaign, the “NoGroko” resistance may have never gotten off the ground. The SPD may have come to a decision on Sunday, but they are by no stretch in agreement. If anything, the convention deepened the party’s fissures. Debate in a party might be healthy, civil war less so.
Martin Schulz (first row, center), leader of Germany’s social democratic SPD party, and leadership members hold up their voting cards during an SPD party congress in Bonn, Germany, on January 21, 2018 | Kay Nietfeld/AFP via Getty Images
5. Let EU reform begin
Champagne will be flowing in the European Commission’s executive chambers Monday morning. (Even more than usual, that is.) With the EU dream couple of Merkel and Schulz poised to take control in Berlin, they can lock arms with France’s Emmanuel Macron and deliver Europe from its doldrums. Or so the fairy tale goes. What is more certain is that Brussels can return its attention to Brexit, upcoming budget negotiations and, most important, preparing for EU reform. An SPD rejection on Sunday would have threatened all of the above and more.