The collapse of coalition talks poses the most serious threat to Merkel’s position since she became chancellor more than a decade ago.
The president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has called on political leaders to rethink their positions and try again to form a government. He will meet the leaders of the Greens and Free Democrats later on Tuesday.
The centre-left Social Democrats — Merkel’s partners in the outgoing government — say they will not budge from their refusal to enter a new Merkel administration. If that stands, a minority government or new elections are the only options.
Peter Altmaier, the acting finance minister and a close confidant of Merkel, called on the parties to not run away from their responsibility, but “make forming a government the primary objective”.
Merkel, who has headed three coalitions since 2005, said she was “very sceptical” about ruling in a minority government and suggested she would stand again as a candidate if elections were called in the new year, telling public broadcaster ARD she was “a woman who has responsibility and is prepared to take responsibility in the future”.
Exploratory talks to form the next German government collapsed on Sunday night after the pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP) walked out of marathon negotiations with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the Green party.
Germany’s president had earlier urged parties to resume efforts to a build a governing coalition following a meeting with Merkel.
“I expect the parties to make the formation of a new government possible in the foreseeable future,” Steinmeier said, adding that the parties had a responsibility that “cannot be simply given back to the voters”.
During elections in September, Merkel’s bloc polled first place but with a reduced share of the vote and with the FDP and Greens as their only plausible coalition partners.
The collapse in the talks and possibility of fresh elections brings further uncertainty for the British government over Brexit. It had hoped that a strong German coalition, including the FDP, might help smooth the next phase of negotiations.
Prolonged uncertainty in Berlin will also raise concerns in France, where Emmanuel Macron was hoping that a strong German government would help with his plans for eurozone reforms. “It is not in France’s interest for things to get blocked,” the French president said at the start of a meeting with Bernard Accoyer, a leader of France’s opposition Les Républicains party.
Steinmeier earlier appealed for German politicians to think of Europe as he called for coalition talks to resume. “There would be incomprehension and great concern inside and outside our country, and particularly in our European neighbourhood, if the political forces in the biggest and economically strongest country in Europe, of all places, didn’t fulfil their responsibility,” he said.
Going in to meet the president on Monday, Merkel said it had been a “day of deep reflection on how to go forward” in Germany. “As chancellor, I will do everything to ensure that this country is well -managed in the difficult weeks to come,” she told reporters.
Christian Democrat and Green negotiators on Monday stressed the common ground that had emerged between the two parties during the weeks of talks and focused their criticism on the FDP leader, Christian Lindner.
Lindner left the talks on Sunday saying the parties involved had missed several self-prescribed deadlines to resolve differences on migration and energy policies, and had “no common vision for modernisation of the country”.
“We continue to treat each other with respect and respect the [FDP’s] decision,” said Julia Klöckner, a CDU delegate. Kristina Schröder, a former Christian Democrat family minister, tweeted that the walkout by the FDP had “discredited” the possibility of a CDU-FDP minority government.
The veteran Green politician Jürgen Trittin predicted that the pro-business party would have “a tough time” explaining its intransigence to voters seeking a responsible government in turbulent political times. Rather than taking the opportunity to make a difference on policies it cared about, such as phasing out the “solidarity surcharge” tax introduced to help fund German reunification, he said, the Free Democrats had “done a runner”.
Lindner defended his walkout, saying continuing with the talks would have required his party to depart from its core policy convictions. “We wanted a political tide change, and that was not possible at this point,” he said.
Germany’s constitution requires the president to nominate a chancellor for approval by the German parliament, the Bundestag. If no stable government can be formed after three rounds of voting there, the president would have to ask Germans to return to the polls.
The Social Democratic party, junior partner in a “grand coalition” with Merkel last term, on Monday ruled out talks about a similar arrangement for the next four years and signalled its appetite for a fresh election.
“Two months after the federal elections, the Christian Democratic Union, the Greens and the FDP have brought Germany into a difficult situation,” said the SPD leader, Martin Schulz. “We consider it important that citizens get the opportunity to consider the situation anew. We are not afraid of new elections.”