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Germany

Bill Tests German Coalition's Willingness to Compromise

The first cracks are appearing in the governing coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives who are bound by a tacit need for compromise. An anti-discrimination law lies at the heart of the discontent.

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Merkel's own party colleagues are beginning to complain behind her back

This week Germany's grand coalition showed itself to be what it really is: a grouping of separate parties with differing agendas and ideas of how to tackle the problems ailing the country.

Nowhere was that more evident than an anti-discrimination law finally decided upon by the cabinet this week in the face of dissenting rumblings.

The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) have suggested that CDU leader and Chancellor Angela Merkel ceded too much ground to the Social Democratic Union (SPD) by accommodating too many of their viewpoints in the final legislation.

"It's a hugely bitter pill that we have to swallow," an unnamed CSU insider told the Berliner Zeitung daily.

Law too close to last government?

As required by the European Union, the legislation is meant to protect against discrimination based on sex, ethnic origin or race.

Alte Menschen auf einer Bank

The law will also protect senior citizens from being discriminated against

However, the German version goes beyond EU guidelines to include discrimination based on religion, weltanschauung, disability, age and sexual identity. Thus, for example the law will protect senior citizens from being refused bank loans or homosexual couples being refused double rooms in hotels. The bill also allows a works council to file a complaint on behalf of an employee who claims discrimination but does not want to take action alone.

Some conservatives fear the extended law will only lead to more bureaucracy and needlessly expensive litigation for companies. Many also think the bill sounds suspiciously close to the original framework hammered out by the previous government of Social Democrats and Greens led by Gerhard Schröder, which was blocked by the conservatives.

Merkel under fire

Angela Merkel

Merkel's party members think she's giving too much away for the sake of coalition politics

What's particularly irksome to some is that Merkel pushed through the legislation during a party conference this week despite campaigning last year with a promise to implement the EU guidelines on the anti-discrimination law on a "one-to-one basis."

"We all know what was said in the election campaign," a leading CDU politician told the Berliner Zeitung.

Amid increasingly critical voices within her party, Merkel this week pointed towards the need for compromise within the governing coalition as the reason for her agreeing to give the green light to the legislation.

Need to compromise

Though that hasn't entirely silenced her critics, it has underlined the compulsion to compromise within the grand coalition, a political experiment that has only been attempted once before in German history, in the 1960s.

"Once you've said yes to the grand coalition, then you have to say yes to the partner too. You have to take it as it is," CSU regional head Peter Ramsauer told his party colleagues this week.

The same logic is being applied within the ranks of the Social Democrats (SPD) too, where some members are disgruntled because they view their party as making excessive concessions to the conservatives. Some SPD members feel that the party has compromised core values by giving in to a further budgetary squeeze on dwindling unemployment and social handouts and a diluted "wealth tax" that will oblige high earners to pay more in taxes.

Too much blind compromise?

However, questions are being raised whether the compromise element should be blindly stressed in a grand coalition or whether more intense discussion about contentious topics is needed.

Symbolbild Koalition SPD CDU

Too much of a good thing?

"Not every row should be sacrificed at the altar of coalition peace. There shouldn't be an impression in future that we're not fighting," Hendrik Wüst, secretary general of the CDU in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia told business daily Handelsblatt.

The anti-discrimination law "won't be the last time that the conservatives simply swallow and stay silent," CSU member Andreas Scheuer told the Spiegel-Online news site.

Though it remains unclear whether the conservatives will block the anti-discrimination legislation when it's introduced in parliament next week, there are indications that pragmatic concerns might override ideological ones.

German government spokesman Thomas Steg said this week that the law had to take effect on August 1 for Germany to escape penalties from Brussels -- a whopping 900,000 euros ($760,000 euros) for each day that Germany fails to implement the law.

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