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Germany

Fissures emerge in Germany's coalition government

What a week for Germany's coalition government. Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were at each others throats - daily. Hairline cracks are becoming visible, and that "at an early stage," veteran lawmakers say.

Influential Berlin architect Axel Schultes designed the Chancellor's Office and came up with the idea for the "Band des Bundes," the "ribbon of government," which is a strip of buildings crossing the River Spree.

So the 71-year-old urban planner is familiar with hairline cracks in seemingly massive buildings. "Hairline cracks in concrete are as unavoidable as they are harmless," he says. "They only become dangerous when they exceed a certain width."

Foul play

Hairline cracks of another kind, however, are now visible and widening between the parties and lawmakers that make up Germany's so-called grand coalition government in Berlin ofChancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). "Everyone is aware of every foul that is played," says one lawmaker. "The tone of voice is shifting," says another deputy. These SPD and CDU lawmakers - all of them political veterans - don't mince words, as long as they aren't mentioned by name.

Germany's third grand coalition at the federal level was launched before Christmas 2013. A year later, a host of issues either the CDU or the SPD feel strongly about were up for debate, including road tolls and immigration, a quota for women, labor unity, service contracts and, once again, the minimum wage. Both sides had emerged from their cover.

On the war path

Minimum wage was the topic on a popular Sunday evening TV talk show - and SPD Labor Minister Andrea Nahles and Bavarian CDU Economics Minister Ilse Aigner were at each other's throat. Clearly, they didn't need opposition parties to disagree.

Monday saw the controversial issue of a planned quota for women on company boards; on Tuesday, a debate on immigration took a harsher turn. SPD parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann submitted a policy paper on a "project the grand coalition should actually be able to accomplish." Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere of the CDU argued existing laws were sufficient. "We don't need a new immigration law", said Gerda Hasselfeldt, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) parliamentary group.

Deputies in the Bundestag

Germany's Bundestag currently has 631 deputies

On Wednesday, the issue was even more delicate.

The Chancellor, who also heads the CDU, and CSU leader Horst Seehofer, envisioned doing away with the solidarity surcharge after 2019 - which prompted Sigmar Gabriel, -Germany's Economics Minister, deputy Chancellor and SPD leader - to complain about a U-turn in policies.

It's not the only conflict between the two coalition partners: Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble announced plans to increase child benefits - insufficient, groused the SPD. "There's no way we'll go along with this," said Carola Reimann, deputy leader of the SPD parliamentary group

For better or for worse

A period of agonizing preceded each of Germany's grand coalitions - in 1966, 2005 and 2013. And once they were launched, the end was already in sight. Perhaps vaguely at first, then openly. "It's started really early this time," according to a Social Democrat who has seen many a coalition government come and go. "A marriage has good and bad days, too - but husband and wife have agreed to grow old together," a CDU lawmaker says. Other deputies agree: Germany has seen less stressful coalition governments.

Apart from the issue of minimum wage, however, domestic issues play a lesser role in view of international conflicts, including the crisis in Ukraine that has turned into a conflict with Russia, the Greek drama and the threat posed by the "Islamic State" terrorist group and extremist Salafists. These challenges persist, they are incalculable. "So we have to avoid quarrels that could get out of hand," a worried lawmaker says. That's one thing members of both parties appear to agree on.

Avoiding quarrels may be the plan, but a look at the parliamentary committees shows how the coalition's work has shifted.

As usual, lawmakers treat each other with consideration in committees on foreign policy, Europe and legal issues.

The same isn't necessarily true for committees on economic, social and transport issues, to name but a few. A member of the research committee complains about too little input from the government. The culture committee that used to hold public sessions now meets behind closed doors.

Elections loom ahead

The adversaries are about to tackle one of the contentious issues. Before the Easter break, they plan to collect complaints about the current minimum wage practice in Germany. They can continue to bicker until then.

Axel Schultes

Architect Schultes: Hairline cracks are inevitable

By Easter, Germany's lawmakers will all have left behind their lovely government buildings on the Spree for their constituencies or holiday trips. They will again hear people complain about the Greek bailout or the other coalition partner. By then, the next important state election will be less than a year away: Baden-Württemberg, and perhaps Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, hold elections on March 13, 2016. One out of five Germans will be called on to vote. Every political party already has an eye on those elections.

Architect Axel Schultes knows all about hairline cracks in concrete, and the danger of corrosion. "If we're only talking about hairline cracks, Chancellor Merkel could head the government for another ten legislative periods," he says. But, at this point, no one knows whether they will remain just hairline cracks or expand into deeper fissures.

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