In a speech at the SPD’s party conference in Berlin that called for the creation of a “United States of Europe” by 2025, as well as a more robust social security net and a phasing out of coal power, Martin Schulz made the case for entering open-ended talks with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
“We don’t want to govern at any price,” Schulz said. “But we also shouldn’t refuse to govern at any price.”
SPD members later voted overwhelmingly to allow their party’s leadership to enter talks with the CDU. The vote means leaders can discuss options including a renewed “grand coalition”, an informal cooperation or a formal agreement to tolerate a conservative minority government by not voting down certain parliamentary motions.
Attempts to build Germany’s next government have been at a standstill since last month’s collapse of coalition talks between the CDU, the Free Democrats and the Greens.
Other European states have expressed their growing impatience with Germany’s political paralysis. Leaders including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, have called on Schulz to break the deadlock.
The SPD leader acknowledged those appeals on Thursday when he warned that “the continent cannot afford four more years of German European policy a la Schäuble”, referring to the austerity measures of the country’s conservative former finance minister.
Schulz told delegates that he wanted EU member states to sign off on a “constitutional treaty” that committed the bloc to take steps towards a federal Europe – a proposal likely to be met with some resistance from Merkel and other EU leaders.
“Such a constitutional treaty has to be written by a convention that includes civil society and the people. This constitutional treaty will then have to be put to the member states and those that don’t approve it will automatically have to leave the EU,” Schulz said.
The SPD leader called for stronger social security for workers in the digital services economy, increased investment in academic and vocational education, and binding green energy targets. Phasing out coal energy was inevitable, Schulz said, and the next government should focus on creating new opportunities for those currently employed in the sector.
“Let’s first see which policies we can push through and then decide about the precise form in which we do it,” he said.
Despite the vote by SPD members to allow talks with the CDU to start, Thursday’s party conference also laid bare the centre left’s deep-seated reservations about teaming up with Merkel as a junior coalition partner for a third time in 12 years.
Schulz apologised for presiding over his party’s worst result since the second world war; the SPD was well beaten by the CDU in September’s elections.
Some delegates used their speeches to vent their annoyance with the party leadership opening the door to talks with Merkel, expressing fears that a new “grand coalition” could deal their party an existential blow. Surveys show that a majority of SPD members would prefer their party to prop up a Merkel-led minority government rather than rejoin a coalition.