DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Germany has now been without a government for over three months since the last election. And Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the political fight of her life. Talks to form a coalition have to wrap up by the end of the week. And the political uncertainty over all of this is hanging over Germany for sure but really all of Europe. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Berlin covering this. Hi, Soraya.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: All right, so this is Merkel's second attempt now to form a coalition. Not much seems to have changed. I mean, the parties she's reaching out to are not necessarily natural allies. Is there any optimism here?
SARHADDI NELSON: Well, there is for several reasons. One is that the parties that are negotiating now are actually in the old government, the caretaker government. So they're used to dealing with each other. There's also been a lot of advanced preparation for this particular series of talks. And all sides have agreed to a news blackout. So there isn't going to be any negotiating, if you will, in front of the press.
As one of the leaders put it, less talk, more work. Merkel also has a more visible role. And she and other party leaders say they're coming to the table with an open mind. But there are definitely red lines.
GREENE: What do you mean by red lines?
SARHADDI NELSON: Well, several issues that just absolutely - where they're all opposed to each other. One is the issue of EU reforms, which is on the table today. In other words, does the EU or the member states, do they integrate more politically and economically or less so? The other issue is whether Germany will actually reach its 2 percent of GDP spending on defense in NATO, which is something that's being demanded by the Trump administration.
The Conservatives say, yes, and the central Social Democrats say, no. But the biggest hurdle is probably the refugee policy because the Conservatives are very worried that if they don't tighten this, that more voters are going to go to the Alternative for Germany Party, which is a far-right party that is now in parliament.
GREENE: Well, and that party has power and influence right now. I mean, they won enough votes this last time to enter Germany's parliament for the very first time. They have been critical of Angela Merkel, almost mocking her the last time she tried to build a coalition. So what is their role right now?
SARHADDI NELSON: Well, they're pretty quiet about this particular gathering, if you will, of these talks. But the reason maybe is because they win no matter what happens. If the Social Democrats go into government, they become - or the Alternative for Germany becomes the main opposition party, which brings with it major key - or major posts within parliamentary committees and more money. And even if they don't win and there are new elections, they end up getting more disgruntled voters, or at least that's what the polls seem to indicate.
So as much as Merkel and other mainstream politicians are vowing not to work with Alternative for Germany, they're not going to have much of a choice.
GREENE: Well, I mean, this just sounds like so much uncertainty and so much of a mess to have a country this size without a - an acting - a working coalition government. How long could these talks go on?
SARHADDI NELSON: Well, the people who are meeting at the moment have said that they will wrap this up by Thursday. And then at that point, the individual parties will have to decide. It's important to remember, though, that the membership within these parties don't necessarily - they're somewhat opposed or many of them are opposed to the leaders and the negotiators who are at the table at the moment.
They've lost a lot of power because of this political paralysis. And so as a result, it could be longer than Thursday before we hear an answer.
GREENE: And does this then go back to voters if they can't do this? I mean, is there a new election if Merkel can't pull this off?
SARHADDI NELSON: That's certainly the most likely solution that there would be a new election. And does Merkel end up being the chancellor? That becomes much more doubtful if that's the case.
GREENE: One of those moments where you really see a parliamentary system at work and being tested. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting in Berlin. Soraya, thanks.
SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.