BERLIN – Germany's main center-left party on Thursday offered Chancellor Angela Merkel an exit from the country's months of political stalemate and said its price could be a radically different view of Europe. .
The Social Democrats (SPD) repeatedly insisted they would not join Merkel's conservatives in another grand coalition after inconclusive elections in September. But on Thursday, delegates to a party conference in Berlin voted to allow talks to continue despite deep internal doubts.
The change came weeks after Merkel's first attempt to forge a coalition collapsed, and a repeat of the alliance between Germany's two largest parties emerged as the only viable way to avoid another election.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former SPD foreign minister, has been busy trying to convince the parties about the idea of a renewed partnership ever since.
With Thursday's vote, the SPD delegates cleared the way for party leader Martin Schulz will begin negotiations with Merkel as early as next week. The secretary general of his party, Klaus Schüler, welcomed the decision as a step towards "a reliable and stable government".
But the talks are not expected to conclude an agreement soon, and analysts suggest that Germany may not have a new government until March. And negotiations could still fail, given the variety of issues on which the SPD and Merkel's conservatives disagree, including asylum policy, climate targets and pension reform.
Schulz on Thursday seemed to widen the gap between him and Merkel in a critical area, Europe, by proposing a much more integrated club that reflects another union across the Atlantic.
"I want a new constitutional treaty to establish the United States of Europe," Schulz said.
The treaty, he said, would come into force by 2025. Members of the European Union who do not accept the new agreement would be forced to leave the bloc, which currently has 28 members. and will be reduced to 27 with the scheduled departure of Great Britain in 2019.
The proposal of the former president of the European Parliament represents a much more dramatic vision of European integration than any he has launched during the German electoral campaign.
He also strongly disagrees with the cautious approach that Merkel has taken towards reform at a time when skepticism about the European project is rampant across the continent and voters show little interest in a much more powerful Brussels.
But Schulz's momentum could add momentum to the reform efforts pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Although it has not gone as far as Schulz, Macron has detailed a long-range plan to unite euro users more closely through a minister of finance and common budget.
Macron was expected to work with Germany on the proposal. But the unusual political uncertainty in Berlin has left the French president, at least temporarily, without a partner.
Schulz, who guided his party to its worst post-war result in the September vote, took responsibility on Thursday for what he described as "a bitter defeat."
In the hours after the elections, Schulz had sworn that the SPD would enter into opposition to distinguish itself more clearly from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.
But he was forced to make a shameful turnaround after Merkel's plans for an agreement between his bloc, liberal pro-business Democrats and green environmentalists to collapse.
Despite leading a troubled and deeply divided party, Schulz was re-elected on Thursday as leader of the SPD with 82 percent of the vote.
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.