* SPD delegates vote by 362 to 279 to back talks
* Decision moves Germany closer to stable government
* Country has been in political deadlock for four months
* All SPD members still get to vote on final coalition deal
* SPD leader Schulz: "Talks are going to be hard"
(Adds Schulz on cabinet, BDI reaction, background)
By Paul Carrel and Holger Hansen
BONN, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Germany's Social Democrats (SPD)
voted on Sunday to begin formal coalition talks with Chancellor
Angela Merkel's conservatives, moving Europe's economic
powerhouse closer to a stable government after months of
SPD delegates voted 362 to 279, with one abstention, to
press ahead with negotiations. The centre-left party's leaders
had agreed a preliminary coalition blueprint with Merkel's
conservative bloc earlier this month.
A recount was held after an initial show of hands was too
close to call for the SPD official in charge of the count and
the result was slightly narrower that most analysts expected.
"We are of course all relieved," SPD leader Martin Schulz
told Phoenix television after the vote in Bonn, the capital of
former West Germany where late SPD chancellors Willy Brandt and
Helmut Schmidt earned reputations as global statesmen.
Now, the SPD aims to negotiate an improved coalition deal it
can sell to members wary of acting as junior partner to Merkel.
Schulz has already said that all SPD members will get to vote on
a final coalition deal.
"The coalition talks are going to be just as hard as the
exploratory talks," said Schulz. "We will talk to conservatives
in the coming days and agree on a time frame. Then I hope that
we will start negotiations soon."
Merkel welcomed the SPD's decision, saying she looked
forward to intensive talks focused on reaching a conclusion
which she hoped would take place in a sensible atmosphere.
"The blueprint from the exploratory talks is the framework
in which we will negotiate and there are still many questions to
clear up in detail and that will require intensive talks,"
Merkel told reporters.
The beginning of full coalition negotiations is likely to be
welcomed by Germany's partners in Europe, where Merkel has long
played a leading role in economic and security affairs.
Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday
they wanted to deepen bilateral cooperation and give the
European Union a fresh push towards closer integration.
The leader of Merkel's Bavarian allies, Horst Seehofer, told
Bild am Sonntag before the SPD vote he expected a new government
to be in place in the first half of March. After the vote, he
said the close decision would not make the negotiations easy.
The head of Germany's BDI industry association, Dieter
Kempf, said the SPD vote was no reason to relax. "The vote sets
new high hurdles for successful negotiations," Kempf said.
NEGOTIATE "UNTIL THEY SQUEAL"
SPD leaders vowed to improve on the coalition blueprint.
"We will negotiate until the other side squeals," the
party's parliamentary leader, Andrea Nahles, said in the most
impassioned of the speeches at the congress in Bonn, imploring
delegates to vote 'yes'.
In an interview with ZDF television, Schulz dodged the
question of whether he would join a Merkel-led cabinet, by
saying: "Personnel matters will for sure be discussed at the
SPD demands include the abolition of Germany's dual
public-private health insurance system in favour of a single
citizen's insurance, scaling back temporary employment contracts
and allowing family reunions for asylum seekers suffering
After the vote, leading members of Merkel's conservative
Christian Democrats (CDU) immediately rejected SPD demands for
"The benchmark for further negotiations is what we already
agreed on during exploratory talks," Thomas Strobl, a CDU deputy
party chairmen, told Funke media group.
Volker Bouffier, CDU premier in the western state of Hesse,
added: "The result of the exploratory talks counts. The key
points may no longer be called into question."
However, SPD party members will still get to vote on any
final coalition deal that emerges.
The coalition blueprint also includes a clause that provides
for a review after two years of the next government's progress
to assess whether any changes to its mission are needed.
The SPD and conservative blocs, which both bled support to
the far right in the Sept. 24 election, struck their preliminary
deal after exploratory talks on renewing their ruling alliance
that took office in 2013.
SPD critics, including the party's youth wing leader Kevin
Kuehnert, argued the exploratory blueprint did not bear enough
of the SPD's hallmarks.
Andrea Roemmele, professor for communication in politics at
Hertie School of Governance, said the close result was difficult
for Schulz, who led the party to its worst election result last
September since Germany became a federal republic in 1949.
"But it is also difficult for the conservatives because they
know any deal still has to go through SPD members," Roemmele
told Phoenix television.
(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Madeline Chambers
in Berlin; Editing by John Stonestreet, Elaine Hardcastle,
First Published: 2018-01-21 15:42:21
Updated 2018-01-21 21:16:26
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