Leader of German Social Democrats’ youth wing could be Merkel’s nemesis

Kevin Kuehnert, leader of the Juso youth wing of Germany's Social Democrats SPD party, speaks during a press conference on Thursday at the SPD headquarters in Berlin. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2018
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Leader of German Social Democrats’ youth wing could be Merkel’s nemesis

BERLIN: On the face of it, a fresh-faced, hoodie-wearing 28-year-old is an unlikely threat to the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), let alone to conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yet before an SPD vote on Sunday on whether to enter formal talks with Merkel, the leader of the party’s Jusos youth wing has struck a chord with members with his campaign against a re-run of the “grand coalition” that has ruled Germany since 2013.
“The chancellor is hanging on a Jusos drip,” wrote the daily Die Welt this week, reflecting a flurry of headlines about Kevin Kuehnert, Jusos leader since November, as a potential nemesis for the upper middle-aged leaders of Germany’s two main parties.
Three days before SPD delegates decide whether to enter formal coalition negotiations with Merkel’s conservatives, Kuehnert, a Berliner, looked serious but relaxed.
“To keep returning to a grand coalition out of fear that everything else is even worse really diminishes the SPD in the long run,” Kuehnert told reporters.
His style brings a breath of fresh air to the somewhat staid world of German politics. In an open-necked black shirt, jeans and trainers, Kuehnert stood in front of a microphone and spoke articulately without notes.
Despite the age difference, some German media have called him Germany’s Jeremy Corbyn, the 68-year-old leftist leader of Britain’s Labour party leader who has galvanized young supporters.
Kuehnert’s clear message and congenial manner have resonated. SPD rank and file are split over the policy blueprint deal that would be the basis for talks with the conservatives.
“I am very optimistic that on Sunday, we have a real chance of winning the vote,” Kuehnert told reporters at SPD headquarters, a venue he said he chose to emphasize solidarity with the party.
The stakes could barely be higher.
If delegates vote against the blueprint agreed with Merkel, SPD chairman Martin Schulz is widely expected to quit.
Moreover, Merkel would have failed twice at forming a coalition after a previous attempt with other parties collapsed in November, putting a big question mark over her own future. The result could be a minority government or new elections.
However, Kuehnert is at pains not to attack Schulz. “After Sunday, I won’t be calling for anyone to resign,” he said.
A soccer fan whose mother works in a jobs center, Kuehnert sought to demolish the argument made by some in the SPD that it must avoid a new election due to its dismal ratings, by saying an election is not inevitable if there is no grand coalition.
In the September election, the SPD saw its support slump to 20.5 percent, its lowest since 1933 and underlining its loss of identity and profile in a coalition that was dominated by Merkel. Now opinion polls put it on at 18 percent.
Kuehnert is adamant that the SPD needs to go into opposition to reinvent itself. “We are looking for a path that will lead the SPD back to being the big left party again,” he said.
Former Jusos leaders include ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whom Merkel defeated to start her first term in office back in 2005, and Andrea Nahles, who is tipped as a possible successor to Schulz.


May heads to EU to push for Brexit breakthrough

British Prime Minister Theresa May to meet with EU top official Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Updated 13 min 52 sec ago
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May heads to EU to push for Brexit breakthrough

  • May has until Feb. 27 to secure EU concessions on the backstop or face another series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons where lawmakers want changes to the withdrawal deal
  • Meetings seek to break impasse in the London Parliament

BRUSSELS: Prime Minister Theresa May will meet top EU official Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Wednesday, pressing on with efforts to find a way to get their Brexit deal through Britain's Parliament.
A raft of meetings between EU and British officials in recent days has yet to produce a breakthrough after May's Parliament resoundingly defeated the divorce deal she had agreed with the bloc in November.
While May's spokesman said the meeting was a “significant” part of a process of engagement with the EU, sources said it was far from certain that this week's meetings would come up with a concrete way to break the impasse in the London Parliament.
The main sticking point is the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of extensive checks on the sensitive border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
“The EU 27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, we cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” said Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for the EU's executive European Commission.
“Further talks will be held this week to see whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council,” he told a regular news briefing.
“We are listening and working with the UK government ... for an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on March 29.” May's spokesman again said it was the prime minister's intention to persuade the EU to reopen the divorce deal.
“There is a process of engagement going on. Tomorrow is obviously a significant meeting between the prime minister and President Juncker as part of that process,” the spokesman told reporters.
Britain's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox met the bloc's chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Monday evening and were due back in the EU's political hub again mid-week.
The EU says the backstop is essential for peace on the island of Ireland. Should no better way be found, it would keep the UK in a basic customs union with the bloc to prevent Irish border checks on goods.
But Cox's legal advice that Britain could find itself trapped in the backstop indefinitely fuelled fears among some eurosceptics as that would undercut a key Brexit promise of pursuing an independent global trade policy.
In her phone call last week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, May stressed the central role of Cox in unlocking parliamentary ratification of the Brexit deal, EU sources said.
Barclay and Cox want to discuss “legal text” with Barnier later this week that would give Britain enough assurances over the backstop, according to British sources.
May has until Feb. 27 to secure EU concessions on the backstop or face another series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons where lawmakers want changes to the withdrawal deal.
The bloc refuses to reopen the already-negotiated legal withdrawal treaty for Britain. EU and UK sources said London could accept other guarantees on the backstop.
The EU has offered to change the accompanying political declaration on new EU-UK ties after Brexit or to produce separate legal assurances or clarifications over the backstop.
But it does not want another effort to sink in Britain's lower house of Parliament and so, 38 days to go, it is still not clear what shape Brexit would take, or whether it would be delayed.
Juncker on Monday gave the EU's clearest signal yet that London could seek a long delay of its exit date of March 29.
But that would require Britain to organize European Parliament elections on its soil in May, a prospect ruled out on Tuesday by a junior Brexit minister.
The protracted Brexit uncertainty raises the risk of the most-damaging, abrupt split, triggering contingency plans increasingly from governments on both sides, as well as businesses.