The German government has concluded its two-day retreat by emphasizing the importance of domestic jobs and foreign policy. But have the coalition parties buried their differences enough to work together effectively?
Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative CDU called the two-day cabinet retreat at Meseburg Castle, the German equivalent of Camp David in the US or Chequers in England, in part to put an end to squabbling in her grand coalition. So one of the things reporters wanted to know at the press conference Merkel held with her Social Democrat deputy chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was: how was the atmosphere?
"The goal here was to get to know one another and be able to work together," Merkel said, adding that all of her ministers were "willing and enthusiastic" and that there would be more retreats to come in the future.
The first four weeks of Merkel's fourth term in office have been marred by disagreements, especially between the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, and the Social Democrats (SPD) over everything from refugee policy to Germany's Hartz IV welfare system. The chancellor acknowledged that the tone in her new cabinet may not be as harmonious as in previous ones.
"We will have debates," Merkel said. "If they become public, it just means that we don't all get up every morning with the same views."
Scholz, who is also Germany's finance minister and the SPD's acting chairman, was rather terse on the subject.
"This was the starting point for our governmental work," Scholz said. "The team-building was a success — the rest comes now."
Jobs as an antidote to the AfD?
The ghost haunting the talks in the castle, as some commentators put it, was the rapid rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, particularly in economically underdeveloped parts of formerly communist eastern Germany. The statements coming out of the retreat made it clear that this government's response is jobs, jobs and more jobs.
Merkel characterized her main domestic priority as laying the groundwork for full employment in Germany by 2025. The unemployment rate in Germany as a whole is currently around 5.7 percent, but it's 7.4 percent in the states that made up the former East. Most people define "full employment" as a low jobless rate, typically less than 2 percent, rather than zero. Reflecting that priority, the first guests to join Merkel's fourth cabinet at its retreat were the leaders of Germany's main employers' association and association of trade unions.
In an appeal to his party's working class base, Scholz stressed that the government would do more to help working people deal with the increasing pace of change on the labor market and the risk of their original qualifications becoming obsolete.
International concerns as national issues
Also invited to the first day of the retreat on Tuesday were NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — an indication of the government's focus.
With only limited consensus on domestic issues between conservatives and Social Democrats, it is understandable that Merkel's government would stress foreign policy where there is greater agreement.
Merkel underscored the importance of both the EU and NATO for Germany. And she reiterated that Germany seeks a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Scholz highlighted Germany's national interest in a strong European Union.
"Developments in the world will become increasingly important for our country," the SPD leader said. "Europe is the most important national issue for Germany."
No deal on Dieselgate and critique from the opposition
Merkel and Scholz did not announce any breakthrough on the many issues that divide opinion in the cabinet, for example,the political response to the so-called Dieselgate scandal. Merkel ruled out any blanket bans on diesel cars in German cities but also hinted that the automotive industry may be expected to bear the brunt of the costs for dealing with emissions that exceed legal limits. But she didn't announce a comprehensive government policy — something that drew criticism from the opposition.
Green party co-chairwoman Annalena Baerbock accused the government of ducking the issue and said that it should take carmakers to task.
"Sitting there drinking tea doesn't do any good," Baerbock told German TV.
Others in the opposition were likewise unimpressed with the results of the Meseberg retreat.
"If our citizens displayed the same ambition as the government did in Meseburg, things would look grim," tweeted the chairman of the pro-business FDP, Christian Lindner. "Nothing on digitization, the Agenda 2030 and top-quality education."
Left Party Chairman Bernd Riexinger called the retreat "a sad and bizarre bit of theater" and wrote "The grand coalition if doing group therapy rather than solving problems."