BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her conservatives still had high hurdles to clear ahead of yesterday's talks on forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), who are pressing for accelerated European integration.
Dr Merkel, weakened by an election setback in September, turned to the left-leaning SPD to seek a re-run of their so-called "grand coalition" after the collapse in November of talks on a three-way coalition untested at national level.
The Chancellor, who commands wide respect abroad after more than 12 years in power, needs the coalition talks to succeed to avoid further erosion of her personal authority and weakening of German international influence, not least in the European Union.
Speaking at the start of the final day of exploratory talks that could lead to formal negotiations, Dr Merkel said it would be a tough day but she recognised that Germans expected results.
"Of course we also have in mind that we have to create a good policy platform for our country. So it's going to be a tough day," she said.
SPD leader Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, has made clear that his priority was Europe.
"On the last day of exploratory talks we will make clear that above all this must be a new start for the European Union," he told reporters. "If we join a government it will be on the condition that it makes Europe strong."
Mr Schulz has called for a United States of Europe by 2025 - an idea rejected by senior conservatives, many of whom are wary of such ambitious reform plans they fear could see Germany funnel more of its taxpayers' money to other EU states.
However, Dr Merkel helped lead Europe through its twin euro zone and refugee crises and is adept at finding compromises, especially on European issues.
Should the parties fail to reach a deal, they could extend the talks, though President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is eager for an agreement, keenly aware that businesses want a stable coalition to end uncertainty and avoid another election.
In signs of incremental progress in the talks, negotiators have agreed to reduce use of the weed killer glyphosate, draft plans seen by Reuters showed.
SPD secretary-general Lars Klingbeil told party members in a video message that the party was striving for improvements in labour, health, education and family policy, and on Europe. "We're fighting for that," he said, adding that the final day of exploratory talks would show "whether we can cut through the knot on these big issues".
Participants have described the negotiations as "good", but SPD leaders need to convince their members and are offering them a vote on Jan 21 on whether to proceed.
Dr Merkel has ruled with the SPD in a sometimes unwieldy "grand coalition" - or "GroKo" - in two of her three previous terms in office, including in the last Parliament from 2013-17.
Should the two biggest party groups fail to agree on moving ahead, Dr Merkel could, albeit reluctantly, try to form a minority government or accept calling new elections.