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German parties start to find common ground in coalition talks

BERLIN (Reuters) - Parties seeking to form Germany’s next government found common ground in areas of social policy and digital infrastructure on Monday, but remain far apart on issues that provoked stormy clashes last week.

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Talks between conservatives, Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) resumed on Monday after Chancellor Angela Merkel convened a weekend meeting to clear the air between ideologically diverse parties forced by electoral arithmetic into awkward partnership.

“The weekend pause for thought did us good,” said Andreas Scheuer, a leader in the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). Other party leaders agreed.

But Monday’s talks, on education, digitalization, pensions and labor issues, as well as domestic security, were always expected to be less contentious than the immigration, fiscal and climate policies that divided them last week.

One sign of the division came in an interview Merkel ally Peter Altmaier gave to the newspaper Die Zeit, where he shot down media reports about a reshuffling of ministerial portfolios. Der Spiegel magazine reported the FDP might head a weakened finance ministry, with key European affairs functions hived off to another ministry.

“The finance ministry is a strong ministry and should remain so in future,” Altmaier told Die Zeit. Altmaier runs Merkel’s office and has been acting finance minister since Wolfgang Schaeuble’s move agreed last month to leave the post and become president of parliament .

Negotiators emerged on Monday with a document spelling out areas where they had reached agreement, including commitments to universal gigabit-speed internet by 2025, and spending 3.5 percent of economic output on research and development.

After discussions that ran late into the evening, they also signed up to Merkel’s election campaign pledge of achieving full employment, without giving a specific target date.

Merkel, whose conservatives came first but lost seats in the Sept. 24 national elections must forge a so-called “Jamaica” coalition - named because the three camps’ colors match that country’s flag - that is untested at national level.

Three more rounds of more detailed exploratory talks are planned for this week and four for next. If successful, the parties can then begin formal coalition talks.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke, Thorsten Severin, writing by Thomas Escritt; editing by Mark Heinrich, Larry King