Coal Standoff Hinders Merkel's Push for Next German Government

  • Greens, pro-market Free Democrats at odds over climate
  • German chancellor seeks to calm clash among potential partners

A clash over climate change between two of Angela Merkel’s potential government partners escalated to the point that the German chancellor had to step in to tone things down.

With the Greens calling for an end to coal power generation in Europe’s biggest economy by 2030 and the pro-market Free Democratic Party balking, competing interests erupted into the open after the latest round of talks on forming Germany’s next government. It’s a sign of the pitfalls facing Merkel on topics from the euro and immigration to energy and the environment.

The chancellor was “a moderating influence” during what participants portrayed as a contentious session in Berlin late Thursday, Katja Suding, an FDP negotiator who participated in the closed-door meeting, told ZDF television.

Almost five weeks after an election victory handed Merkel a fourth term while leaving German politics fragmented, she and leaders of three other parties are hunkering down for weeks of bargaining on a potential governing alliance led by her Christian Democratic Union. Merkel wants to conclude the exploratory phase by mid-November, followed by detailed coalition talks.

“There’s a huge potential for conflict over energy and climate,” Claudia Kemfert, an economist at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, said by phone. The FDP appears to be equivocating on Germany’s climate targets “and it’ll be extremely difficult if they can’t reach a consensus on that,” Kemfert said.

While all parties agreed in principle this week that they want to uphold the Paris climate accord, the FDP is pressing for a commitment to curb government measures to promote renewable energy, which help make German power prices the second-highest in the European Union after Denmark’s.

“We certainly have to reduce carbon dioxide,” the FDP’s Suding said. “In Germany, this is much more expensive than in other countries and we have to find a way to reduce CO2 emissions more cheaply. Of course, there won’t be a complete phase-out of coal by 2030.”

Balancing Act

Merkel has to balance Green calls for promoting clean energy and her own party’s interests in regions such as North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional coal-and-steel region that her CDU won in a state election in May.

“We spent half the session trying to agree that Germany is bound by international accords to address climate controls,” Green lawmaker Annalena Baerbock said by phone. “The mediation of Mrs. Merkel and the CDU delegates brought the talks to order.”

The upshot is that Merkel has little to show for the first coalition talks on climate and energy. While her CDU-led bloc has always governed with partners during her 12 years in office, the four-party combination she’s exploring now is untried at the national level.

‘How to Get There’

“It’s very clear that we want to stand by the national and global goals” on climate, Peter Tauber, the CDU’s general secretary, said in a YouTube video dated Friday. “We’re arguing about how to get there, what the right instruments are.” That includes protecting the economy and keeping energy affordable, he said.

Amid the partisan bickering, 81 percent of the German public expect Merkel to seal a coalition pact between the CDU, her Bavarian CSU allies, the Free Democrats and Greens, compared with 76 percent two weeks ago, according to an FG Wahlen poll for ZDF published Friday.

“We’ll have to work hard to reach an agreement, but I still don’t think it’s impossible,” Suding said.

— With assistance by Birgit Jennen

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