Schulz fights for 'United States of Europe' by 2025

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference following a so-called

Schulz said the party would only recover if it could offer a clear vision of a Germany and a Europe that worked for their citizens, calling for deeper European integration and a "United States of Europe" by 2025.

Schulz, who initially said his party should go into opposition after being punished for participating in the previous grand coalition under Merkel, apologised for his party's disastrous electoral result.

Some delegates used their speeches to vent their annoyance with the party leadership opening the door to talks with Merkel, expressing fears that a new "grand coalition" could deal their party an existential blow.

Schulz, a former head of the European Parliament, said a pre-condition for entering such talks would be "an about-face in European policy".

"There are various, equally valuable ways in which we can contribute to forming a government in this country", Schulz said.

"That is why their preferred option would be to tolerate a minority government".

Given the rocky path ahead, Germany is "unlikely to have a new government before spring", predicted the SPD's Olaf Scholz, mayor of the northern city-state of Hamburg.

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"I would ask you all...for forgiveness for this bitter defeat", said Schulz, speaking at the SPD's convention in Berlin.

He demanded Berlin join French President Emmanuel Macron and other proponents of major EU reforms in boosting the bloc and its currency union, including by raising investment and giving the eurozone a common finance minister and budget.

Schulz became the SPD's top candidate a year ago when he won 100 percent party support in January and saw SPD poll ratings briefly shoot up some 10 percentage points.

The Social Democrats have been part of Germany's government for 15 of the past 19 years - first leading a center-left government under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder from 1998 to 2005, then twice governing in a "grand coalition" under Merkel, from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until now.

Thousands of members had already defected from the historical working-class champions when former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder slashed back the welfare state in the early 2000s.

But Thursday's party conference also laid bare the centre left's deep-seated reservations about teaming up with Merkel as a junior coalition partner for a third time in 12 years.

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