Germany's SPD has voted to start formal talks for a new "grand coalition" with Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU. For many, the narrow vote has demonstrated that Schulz still has to prove he's the right person to lead the party.
Germany's Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz was greeted with a lackluster round of applause as he first took to the stage to address the 600 party delegates gathered in Bonn on Sunday.
Schulz began the day facing a wave of anger from sections of the crowd due to the preliminary coalition blueprint he had struck a week earlier with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc. Throughout the Bonn World Conference Center, the party conference venue that also happens to be the old West German parliament, there were talks of how little Social Democratic policy it contained and how Schulz had squandered a massive opportunity.
It was thus unsurprising that the SPD leader vowed in his speech to fight for more concessions from Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), should it come to formal talks. "We will fight for further improvements in the coalition negotiations if we can continue the talks," he said, his speech getting ever more heartened as he went, as though his career depended on it.
How will Schulz negotiate a better plan?
Schulz promised he would push to get rid of the proposed cap on refugees, establish a "citizens' insurance" scheme that would guarantee basic health care standards for both state and private patients, and secure greater employee rights.
Delegates, however, were split over his chances of success. "The only way we can see what other policies we can get into blueprint is to continue the talks," SPD parliamentarian Michael Thews told DW. "The art of negotiation is to find your arguments and find supporters at the table, but that's only possible if you have the talks in the first place. Otherwise, there's no room for any maneuver whatsoever."
Schulz will once again have to reach a consensus with the hardliners in the CSU. According to Lutz Egerer, an SPD lawmaker from Bavaria, the CSU is not prepared to give Schulz any more amendments during the formal talks. "I know the CSU very well, and I can tell you that they are not prepared to budge an inch, because (CSU lawmaker) Markus Söder is vying to become state premier and he can't show any tolerance to the migrant question." Egerer added that Schulz was being "fanciful if he thinks the Bavarians aren't going to make it extremely difficult for him."
Turning lemons into lemonade?
There was no sense of jubilation after the SPD's delegates narrowly voted in favor of launching formal talks with Merkel's conservatives, nor was there much grief from the losing side either. Those who were skeptical of a new coalition will get to vote once again on the final coalition deal, slated to be around Easter.
However, as delegates left the conference center, they did so in agreement that the entire process had reflected well on the party.
"Ultimately the debate was fruitful and fair," said Tobias von Pein, delegate from Schleswig-Holstein. "There was a fear at the beginning that the two sides would move further away from each other, but I think there's now a better understanding. I hope that will strengthen his position in the negotiations."
The kids aren't alright
Next to the vote, for many the highlight of the party conference was the SPD's "Young Socialists," or Jusos, who made their opposition to preliminary policy blueprint loudly heard. Every dig aimed at the coalition agreement was met by a rapturous applause and cheering from the youth section. One would have been forgiven for thinking at one point that the vote of confidence would fail by a landslide.
The Jusos were spurred by their head, Kevin Kühnert, who had caused a stir in the week prior to the conference by expressing his opposition to the SPD's "vicious cycle of grand coalitions." On Sunday, the cameras never ceased to follow the man portrayed in the media as the 28-year-old threatening to topple Merkel. During his speech, he accused the party of being in a "crisis of trust" with its supporters and that "this loop needs to be broken."
His speech prompted his fellow Jusos to jump from their seats and break out in applause, while the rest of the room soaked in what they had just seen. As one delegate put it, the youth wing had always been there to criticize the senior delegates, but rarely had they done it so forcibly.
And although delegates ultimately voted against his calls to walk away from the negotiating table, it was clear that Kühnert will be closely scrutinizing every step the rank and file takes from here on. After all, there is little optimism among the Jusos that the upcoming talks will prove a success.
"The blueprint we were presented is hardly a social democratic paper, and if Schulz still thinks he can pass better policies, then what was the point of having these preliminary talks in the first place," said Justus Strothmann, a Juso member from North Rhine-Westphalia. "If this is all we got from the initial agreement, then think it's going to be pretty much impossible for Schulz to present a plan that's significantly more social democratic."