Germany's conservatives and Social Democrats are trying to iron out legislative differences by meeting at the top of a mountain. But will they be able to overcome their many conflicts of interest?
At least in terms of altitude, you can't get any further from the political fray of Berlin than Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze. And the parliamentary leaders of the three parties in the governing grand coalition hope that their two-day summit on the summit, which begins on Monday, will help them get their legislative agenda going in earnest.
After a faltering start, the government cabinet ministers under Angela Merkel already went on a team-building retreat last month. Now their counterparts in the Bundestag — Volker Kauder of the conservative CDU, Andrea Nahles of the Social Democrats (SPD) and Alexander Dobrindt of the Bavarian conservatives, the CSU — are following suit.
These are the people tasked with translating the 174-page coalition agreement into actual laws, and the symbolic message they hope to project by using the 3,000-meter peak as a backdrop is obvious: this is a coalition that aims high — and not just a marriage of necessity concluded only because there was no alternative.
But conflicts abound, beginning with the differing agendas conservatives and Social Democrats will be bringing to the table and the specific pressures the three parties are facing from within and without.
Cheaper housing for a core constituency
On the eve of the Zugspitze summit, Nahles said that she would be pushing for quick legislation to help lower-income Germans make ends meet.
"We are aiming to get a lot done," Nahles told the DPA news agency. "Especially on the issue of affordable housing and rents we want to make rapid progress and reach the first agreements based on our coalition contract."
The SPD wants the government to give subsidies to families with annual incomes of under €75,000 ($90,000) to help them buy houses and apartments. Social Democrats also would like to require landlords to reveal how much previous tenants paid when renting out properties to new ones. They believe that will make it easier to enforce exists laws against price gouging on rents. And they're calling on Germany's federal government to invest some €2 billion to build 1.5 million new apartments by 2021.
It's easy to understand why Nahles is choosing to stress this issue. The SPD has been rapidly losing the loyalty of its traditional constituency, working-class people. The latest opinion polls put support for Social Democrats at a dismal 17 percent. And there's been a minor rebellion within the SPD of members who want to see the party return to its left-wing roots – Nahles herself recently only attracted 66 percent of the vote in what should have been a cakewalk party-internal election that made her the Social Democrats' first-ever female chairwoman.
The SPD thus desperately needs policy successes in areas that will allow it to portray itself as the party of the less affluent if it is to lift itself out of the electoral doldrums.
Combating the ‘anti-deportation industry'
While the SPD has honed in on housing, conservatives are focusing on tighter controls on migration and specifically quicker deportation of rejected asylum seekers.
Against the backdrop of refugees resisting police trying to enforce a deportation order in the southwestern German town of Ellwangen, Dobrindt was pointing fingers and sounding alarms.
"It's unacceptable that the rule of law and order is being consciously sabotaged by an aggressive anti-deportation industry and that the safety of the public is being further endangered," Dobrindt told Bild newspaper.
Led by the CSU, conservatives are pushing for so-called ANKER centers, large-scale refugee facilities capable of temporarily accommodating as many 1,500 people. Conservatives hope that centralization will allow officials to decide on would-be asylum seekers' fates more quickly, thus making deportation easier. Dobrindt has gone on the attack, using newspaper interviews to accuse those who oppose the centers of being "for less order and more migration."
There are also some suggestions of withholding development aid to countries of origin that do not cooperate with deportations.
The CSU wants to establish its right-wing credentials on the migrant issue in an effort to limit losses to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Bavaria's upcoming state election this October. The CSU would like to retain its absolute majority in Bavaria, but the latest polls put its support at only 41 to 44 percent – with the AfD siphoning off 12 to 13 percent.
More generally, resistance has emerged within both the CSU and the CDU to the centrist policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel. A number of younger conservatives, including Dobrindt himself, have hinted that they partly blame Merkel for the rise of the AfD and think the remedy is to move the CDU-CSU further back to the right.
Conflicts of interest
Coming off historically poor performances in Germany's 2017 national election, both groups feel a need to refocus on their core constituencies and values. At the same time, the grand coalition means that these two natural rivals must cooperate at a time when they would rather be emphasizing their differences.
The inherent friction constantly generates sparks. Dobrindt's critical remarks are directed just as much at some factions within the SPD as at any of Germany's opposition parties. Conversely, some members of the SPD don't shy away from criticizing their governmental partners for what they feel is the conservatives' overblown fixation on migrants.
"You could get the impression that all politics is ever about is the refugee question," the Social Democratic state premier of the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Manuel Schwesig, told Welt newspaper. Deputy SPD parliamentary leader Karl Lauterbach also spent the weekend accusing members of the conservative leadership of "egotism" and inciting populist debates with little substance.
In the interests of a successful government, the coalition parties hope that the clear mountain air of the Zugspitze will dispel some of this rancor. But it's impossible to overlook the irony of politicians retreating to the coldest place in Germany to try to thaw out a very problematic relationship.