BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel took a significant step toward ending Germany's lengthy political impasse by securing a preliminary agreement Friday to enter formal coalition talks with a center-left party. The deal was welcomed by Germany's European allies, but her prospective partner now faces a tough task to sell it to skeptical supporters.
Exhausted negotiators from Merkel's conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats presented their deal, which includes pledges to strengthen the European Union and keep a lid on the number of migrants entering Germany, following over 24 hours of non-stop talks to cap a week of wrangling.
"We have achieved outstanding results," said the Social Democrats' leader, Martin Schulz. But to make a new government a reality, he must first persuade a party congress Jan. 21 to agree to hold formal coalition negotiations. Then, if those talks are successful, he must steer a coalition deal through a ballot of the full party membership.
If things go well, a new government could be formed by Easter, said Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union — the Bavaria-only sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.
"If we succeed, these could be four very, very good years," Seehofer said. "I am already speaking of these years because I believe we will succeed."
The prospective partners have governed Germany together for the past four years but Schulz, Merkel's defeated challenger in Germany's Sept. 24 election, initially said after the Social Democrats crashed to a disastrous result that they would go into opposition. That decision was popular with members.
He reluctantly reconsidered after Merkel's coalition talks with two smaller parties collapsed in November.
The conservatives also performed poorly in the election, and the three coalition parties' support dropped by a total of nearly 14 percentage points.
"This election result was a signal to politicians that business as usual wouldn't work and that we must show the people in this country we understand," Seehofer said. "We made that the basis of our work."
Seehofer's CSU, which has taken a hard line on migration, has sought to reinforce its law-and-order profile in the face of a challenge from the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which entered parliament for the first time in September.
Friday's agreement states that the number of new asylum-seekers shouldn't exceed a range of 180,000-220,000 annually. And there will be a 1,000-per-month limit on the number of close relatives allowed to join migrants in Germany who have a status below full asylum. That falls short of conservative demands for maintaining a block on such family reunification, but also is more limited than what the Social Democrats sought.
Schulz obtained a minor reform to how the public health insurance system is financed — far from his party's original proposal — as well as a commitment to guarantee the current level of pensions through 2025, among other things. He didn't secure an increase in the top income tax rate that his party proposed.
Merkel highlighted promises to hire 15,000 more police officers and 2,000 people to strengthen the justice system.
The three parties didn't officially give up Germany's target of a 40 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 compared with 1990, which a draft earlier this week had suggested they would.
The deal pledged that Germany will play an active role in the debate on the EU's future and strengthening European integration — an issue dear to Schulz, a former European Parliament president.
The parties pledged to fight tax dumping and evasion in Europe, pushing for "fair taxation of big companies" including internet giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, and called for unspecified minimum rates for corporate tax. They said Germany wants to reform the eurozone in partnership with France and is prepared to pay more into the EU budget.
Merkel currently leads a caretaker government, limiting her ability to take major policy initiatives as French President Emmanuel Macron pushes an ambitious European reform agenda.
"We have, in what feels like a long time since the election, seen that the world will not wait for us," Merkel said. "We are convinced that we need a new awakening for Europe."
"So I have no worries about us finding common solutions with France," she added.
France and Bulgaria, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, welcomed Friday's developments. Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the EU's executive Commission, said the European part of the deal was "a significant, positive, constructive future-looking contribution to the European policy."
If the new coalition doesn't come together, the only remaining options would be an unprecedented minority government led by Merkel's conservatives or a new election. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who alone has the power to dissolve parliament, has made clear he doesn't want a new vote — and polls so far suggest that the result wouldn't be significantly different.
Prominent Social Democrat opponents of a new "grand coalition" of Germany's biggest parties weren't placated by Friday's deal and vowed to keep fighting it.
Kevin Kuehnert, the head of the party's youth wing, criticized "cheap compromises." Left-leaning lawmaker Hilde Mattheis said the result was "disappointing" and would produce "no new policies for more fairness and solidarity." Another lawmaker, Frank Schwabe, described the deal on migrant's relatives as "shabby."
David Rising and Frank Jordans in Berlin and Raf Casert in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed to this story