New SPD leadership on its way to challenge Germany’s Grand Coalition

"An exit from the GroKo is not an end in itself. But no one will expect you to remain in a coalition with no ifs or buts and no questions asked," said one of SPD's new leaders, Walter-Borjans.EPA-EFE/FELIPE TRUEBA [Felipe Trueba/ epa]

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) officially elected Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans as the new chairmen at a national conference on Friday (6 December). There was no vote about remaining in the Grand Coalition with the CDU/CSU conservatives, but the new leadership appears to have ‘declared war’ on them. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Although a formality, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans were elected as the new SPD leaders with 75.9% and 89.2% respectively.

“We’ll make sure things get better,” Esken promised in her candidacy speech before the vote. Due to historically low rating of currently only 15%, the SPD has been for months desperately looking for a new socio-political course which would distinguishe it from its coalition partners CDU and CSU.

Esken promised that the new duo will show real leadership with a “clear edge, clear language and a clear direction”.

The appointment of Esken and Walter-Borjan last Saturday (30 November) came as a surprise to everyone, showing how urgently the SPD is looking for new leaders.

With 53% of the votes, the rather unknown left-wing political duo even prevailed against current Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who was considered a favourite, with his colleague Klara Geywitz.

Half a year after Andrea Nahles announced her resignation in the face of a catastrophic European election, the SPD has, once again, embraced a new leadership. One should be reminded that the SPD lost twelve percentage points in the latest EU elections compared to the previous one.

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Withdrawing from the Grand Coalition remains a realistic option

The new leading duo took office by ‘declaring war’.

They both want to renegotiate the current coalition agreement with the CDU and CSU. And if necessary, they have pledged to even leave the so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ (GroKo).

“I was and am sceptical about the future of the GroKo,” Esken said today.

However, there will be no vote on whether or not to remain in the coalition. Instead, the three-day party conference should debate “how we approach the (conservative) Union to bring about such changes to the coalition agreement,” Esken said.

The SPD is unanimous on this, as it considers that the severe loss of votes it has endured in recent years relates to the loss of the party’s profile within the GroKo. An abrupt resignation, which would either lead to new elections or leave Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) with a minority government, would not be effective either.

“An exit from the GroKo is not an end in itself. But no one will expect you to remain in a coalition with no ifs or buts and no questions asked,” said Walter-Borjans.

By intending to initiate a change of direction, delegates discussed a key proposal, negotiated yesterday between Esken, Walter-Borjans, the party’s Bundestag faction, and SPD members in government.

With the motion, there was “a realistic chance of a continuation. No more, but no less,” Esken added.

Half a trillion new investments

In the motion, the SPD is putting forward a number of demands that are clearly aimed at confrontation with the Union. And also against their own finance minister, Olaf Scholz, who does not want to have any new national debt.

But exactly the opposite is needed, Esken said, as she is championing the “need for an investment offensive, a decade of public investment”.

SPD’s new leadership intends to invest half a trillion euros in municipal infrastructure, digitisation and climate protection measures. They also want to be freed from the federal debt brake, if necessary.

For the SPD, the decisive factor of its political programme remains the basic pension. But they would also fight for a new socio-political industrial policy, a basic child safety net, as well as a minimum wage of “at least 12 euros”. Esken also promised that a “groundbreaking” concept of the welfare state would be further discussed after Andrea Nahles had already broached the issue.

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For Europe and against military expenditure

In his speech, Norbert Walter-Borjans also stressed the role of the EU.

“We are a European party. The EU is of great strategic importance for Germany, but it is so much more than that. In Brussels, the SPD intends to advocate for a social offensive and take action against tax dumping.

Walter-Borjans criticised CDU’s current party leader and defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, for committing Germany to NATO’s military spending objective of 2% of a country’s GDP, instead of investing in peacekeeping and development policy.

Just last week, when redistributing NATO payments, Germany had promised to pay an additional €33 million into the defence alliance, as of 2021.

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Opposed to the government’s climate package

When it comes to environmental protection, too, the SPD’s lead proposal takes clear action against the climate protection package drafted with the CDU/CSU.

Walter-Borjans and Esken want to renegotiate the package, some of which is already on the mediation committee, but the conservatives vehemently opposes the re-opening of negotiations.

Among other things, they propose to raise the entry price for CO2 in the transport and construction sector from ten to €40. The two chairmen also clearly rejected a general distance regulation for wind turbines, which contradicts the controversial proposal of CDU’s Economy Minister, Peter Altmeier.

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