Angela Merkel is in talks with the German president after the collapse of coalition talks pushed the country into its worst political crisis in decades.
The pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP) walked out of marathon negotiations shortly before midnight on Sunday, with its leader, Christian Lindner, saying there was no “common basis of trust” between the FDP, Merkel’s centre-right bloc and the Greens. It was “better not to govern than to govern badly”, he added.
“It is a day of deep reflection on how to go forward in Germany,” Merkel told reporters before talks with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president. “As chancellor, I will do everything to ensure that this country is well managed in the difficult weeks to come.”
Merkel could seek to form a minority government, either with the FDP or the Greens, and gather support from other parties on individual policy votes.
Once all other options are exhausted, Steinmeier could dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. To get there, however, Steinmeier would need to first set in motion a complicated process involving a parliamentary vote on Merkel’s role as interim chancellor.
Merkel has been trying to forge a coalition between her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the FDP and the Greens following federal elections at the end of September.
Lindner said on Sunday the parties involved in the talks had missed several self-prescribed deadlines to resolve differences on migration and energy policies, and had “no common vision for modernisation of the country”.
A so-called “Jamaica” coalition – so named because the parties’ traditional colours are the same as those on the Jamaican flag – has previously been tested only at regional level, but was the only plausible coalition option open to Merkel.
The Social Democrat leader, Martin Schulz, whose party has played junior partner to Merkel in the German government for the past four years, on Sunday again ruled out the possibility of another grand coalition under his leadership. “The voter has rejected the grand coalition,” Schulz said at a party conference in Nuremberg.
A repeat of the grand coalition between the two largest parties would also result in the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, the third largest party, becoming the official opposition and gain enhanced status in the Bundestag.
Merkel described the FDP’s walkout as “regrettable” on Sunday night and insisted the parties would have been capable of reaching a compromise, in spite of their polarised views on migration.
In a month of talks, she has often cut a passive figure as party representatives found themselves at loggerheads over issues such as the question of how many of the migrants who found their way to Germany in 2015 and 2016 would be allowed to be reunited with their families.
Migration emerged as a contentious political issue in Germany following the refugee crisis, when 1.2 million migrants entered the country in 2015-16. The backlash against Merkel’s decision to keep open Germany’s borders has resulted in a far-right party entering the German parliament for the first time in more than 50 years.
The CDU, the CSU and the FDP have, at times, worked to outdo each other on calling for a harder line on migration controls in the coalition talks.
According to reports in German media, the Green party suggested a compromise over the weekend whereby they would agree to limit Germany’s annual intake of migrants to a benchmark figure of 200,000 – as long as other parties did not rule out allowing migrants with “subsidiary protection” status to be reunited with their families.
The parties also struggled to find common ground on climate change, with the Greens calling for a reduction in coal-generated power while its potential coalition partners have expressed concerns about job losses in the energy and manufacturing sectors.
If the talks had been successful, negotiations would have moved to the next stage, in which a document with fundamental agreements provides the basis for the carving up of ministerial roles.
While the debate in Germany over the past few weeks has mainly focused on policy differences between the parties, it is likely to soon shift to the chancellor, and the question of whether or not she still commands sufficient power to hold together a strong government.
What happens next?
There are a few options.
Mrs Merkel could form a minority government, for instance with the Greens. But this would leave her having to patch together support for every vote – a big change for a leader who has been used to ruling as part of a grand coalition.
That coalition could return – Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats joining with the second-largest party in parliament, the social democratic SPD, would have a comfortable majority. The SPD repeatedly ruled out this option – “voters have rejected” it, said leader Martin Schulz on Sunday – but they may be persuaded to change their minds.
Or there could be fresh elections. These would need to be called by President Steinmeier, after a long drawn-out process that would take months. Analysts say new elections would be likely to benefit the AfD most, so other parties would probably try to avoid them.