Merkel, SPD try to smooth over bumpy start to coalition government
MESEBERG, Germany (Reuters) - Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-left partners tried to allay concerns about a rocky start to their month-old coalition on Thursday, saying they had a clear road map ahead after two days of talks north of Berlin.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of the two-day meeting, Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, her vice chancellor from the Social Democrats (SPD), pledged to work closely together on contentious issues like energy policy and pension reforms.
"We've now got a clear plan for the work ahead of us," Merkel said, adding she was encouraged by the "harmonious" atmosphere at the rural retreat, held at the snow-covered Meseberg palace 60 km (38 miles) north of Berlin.
Merkel, starting her third term, effusively praised Gabriel and SPD Labour Minister Andrea Nahles, whose plans on pension reform and a national minimum wage have drawn fire from conservatives in Merkel's camp.
Merkel went out of her way to endorse energy law reforms from Gabriel that will squeeze industry and operators of new renewable plants.
"Every project put forth by every minister is a project of the entire government," the chancellor, on crutches after a cross-country skiing accident in December, said at the start of the retreat.
In a poll by the Emnid institute published earlier this month, 46 percent of Germans said the "grand coalition" government, formed after a bitter election in September and three months of coalition wrangling, had got off on the wrong foot. Only 17 percent believed the right-left government had got a good start.
The ink on the agreement between Germany's two biggest political blocs had barely dried in December when the arch-conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), Merkel's Bavarian allies, began challenging the details of who would benefit from the introduction of a minimum wage.
The CSU has also clashed repeatedly with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD over the Bavarians' divisive demands to introduce a national motorway toll on cars.
The SPD Justice Minister Heiko Maas surprised conservatives by saying he would defy a coalition agreement to introduce legislation for controversial anti-terror measures to keep and store the phone and Internet data of private citizens.
The SPD Family Minister Manuela Schwesig also angered Merkel in early January with plans to cut the working week for parents of small children to 32 hours with no reduction in pay. She was publicly slapped down for that.
There has also been plenty of dissent about Nahles's plans to make it easier for people to retire at the age of 63 if they have worked for 45 years, even if they had been unemployed for up to five years during their working careers.
At Thursday's news conference, the SPD's Gabriel stressed that the two sides were pulling in the same direction despite a shaky start.
"We've got a joint government now," said Gabriel, the SPD's likely candidate for the next election in 2017.
"Despite our differences, we've all got a road map now," he said. "We've had an excellent start."
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