BERLIN (Reuters) - We will argue, but we are ready to get on with governing Germany: that was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s take on her new cabinet after a “get to know you” retreat for ministers.
Leading ministers from Merkel’s conservative bloc and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners have been sniping at each other since taking office a month ago, when they renewed their loveless “grand coalition” - in power since 2013.
The two groups agreed to team up again only because they were desperate to avoid fresh elections after both had haemorrhaged support in last September’s federal vote.
Merkel tried to end the squabbling during the two-day session at Schloss Meseberg, her official country residence outside Berlin.
“We will have debates,” she told reporters, recognising the turbulent start to the government and accepting there will be rows. “We don’t all wake up in the morning with the same ideas.”
“But what I take away from this retreat is that the will to reach agreements is there,” she added after the meeting, which began on Tuesday.
Merkel began last month a fourth, and likely final, term that may prove her most difficult yet as she leads the coalition with her personal standing diminished following Germany’s 2015 refugee crisis.
With more than six months gone since the election, Merkel knows that voters expect her government to address their economic, social and security concerns quickly.
The pressure is on to deliver: a clause in the government deal envisages a review of progress after two years, giving each partner the opportunity to leave then if the coalition is not working for them.
“It is also clear that we have a lot of work to do,” Merkel said, urging cabinet members to focus on implementing policy rather than bickering. “Everyone has enough work, there is not much time left for other things.”
To signal to her cabinet the importance of the biggest European Union economy having a stable government, Merkel invited NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to the meeting.
But she did not set out a reform timetable. Andrea Nahles, who is expected to take over as SPD leader later this month, had called for this before the meeting, saying Merkel needed to “get government business up and running”.
Nahles has chosen to stay outside the cabinet, opting to lead the SPD parliamentary group - a role that allows her both to press the government on passing reforms important to her party members and to criticise the conservatives.
Coalition sources say the art of governing in the coalition will be to find a happy medium between substantive policy work and skirmishes that allow the camps to differentiate themselves from each other.
“This retreat was less about reaching concrete decisions,” Merkel said. “The aim here was to get to know each other, to establish a capability to work and simply to learn from the outside what is expected of us.”
“The spirit was good overall, very cooperative,” she added.
Writing by Paul Carrel; editing by David Stamp