“GRAND coalitions have the feel of perverse sex acts,” Willy Brandt is said to have opined. The great Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor’s point was that broad alliances of the centre-right and centre-left are unnatural and best avoided. With one short exception, that is what post-war German politicians did until 2005. But since then, thanks to a fragmenting party landscape, Angela Merkel has led two grand coalitions. On February 7th her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the SPD announced that they had agreed to form yet another.

It was not the chancellor’s first choice. All three parties lost ground in last September’s election and the CDU/CSU had initially negotiated with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens. But those talks collapsed in November. With some coaxing from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president, the SPD agreed to talks, though only reluctantly.

The resulting 177-page agreement speaks to Brandt’s scepticism. It offers continuity, not renewal. Chunks of Germany’s budget surplus (€45bn, or $55bn) are parcelled out among favoured causes: child benefit, pensions, modest tax cuts and infrastructure investment. For the CDU/CSU it includes an annual (though still hefty) cap of 180,000 to 220,000 refugees to prevent a repeat of the surge in 2015. It limits family-reunification immigration to 1,000 per month, plus “hardship cases”. For the SPD there are restrictions on short-term job contracts and a review of disparities between public and private health insurance.

Many were disappointed. Taking aim at Mrs Merkel, the editor of Bild, Germany’s most-read newspaper, called the deal “historically the worst negotiating result ever obtained by an election winner”. The Young Socialists, the youth wing of the SPD, called it “a hodgepodge of trial runs”. They will play a major role in the coming weeks, as the leading voice for a “no” vote from SPD members in their upcoming vote on joining a new government, the result of which is expected on March 4th. If they win—only slightly less than likely—Mrs Merkel will be forced to form a minority government or, if Mr Steinmeier approves, contest a new election.

The SPD leadership has two hopes. The first is that members will be attracted by “A new departure for Europe!”, the deal’s opening chapter. It pledges close co-operation with Emmanuel Macron on defence and migration, an increased German contribution to the EU budget, progress towards increased powers for the European Parliament and the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism (a crisis firewall set up in 2012) into a permanent “European Monetary Fund”. Still, the text is vague and misses out important subjects like completing banking union. The proposals are an opening to Mr Macron, but at this stage little more.

The second overture to the SPD base is the proposed distribution of cabinet jobs. The party takes both the powerful finance ministry—essential for influence over EU policy—and keeps the foreign and labour ministries. That is a big concession from the CDU, which also cedes the interior ministry to the CSU’s Horst Seehofer. But anyone hoping to see a fiery federalist in Wolfgang Schäuble’s old job will be disappointed. Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg and the likely pick, is a cautious centrist close in instinct to Mrs Merkel. Meanwhile Martin Schulz, who on February 7th announced his resignation as SPD leader, is tipped for the foreign ministry.

If the SPD votes “yes”, the new government should be in place before Easter. But the sense of a transition will linger. There will be more open disagreement between the ruling parties and a review of progress two years in (perhaps the moment for an early election). The far-right Alternative for Germany will be the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. Ambitious rivals are breathing down the necks of party leaders. As much as it points to Germany’s next steps, the coalition deal is the artefact of a passing political era.