It was never going to rival the savage pre-election TV debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, or between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, but Sunday night finally saw German chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union Angela Merkel come face-to-face with her rival Martin Schulz.
While the Merkel-Schulz showdown saw some lively sparring in parts, it mostly showed how close the candidates were in terms of their ideas and policies. So close, in fact, that Greens candidate Katrin Göring-Eckardt called it “a duet, not a duel,” and Holger Schmieding, the chief economist at Berenberg, told Bloomberg “[the debate] won’t be enough for Schulz to gain a large number of undecided voters.”
With almost half of German voters undecided about which party to vote into power on Sept. 24, Sunday night’s 90-minute TV debate was the most exciting thing that’s happened in a boring election campaign so far. Germans were forced to watch the showdown because four German TV stations broadcasted the debate simultaneously.
And polls showed that viewers saw Merkel as the winner:
Schulz, whose Social Democrats are trailing Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union by around 17 percentage points, was under massive pressure to claw back some of the support he’d enjoyed when he first cast his hat in the ring for chancellor.
He said before the debate that he wouldn’t attack Merkel personally—it likely wouldn’t have gone down well with German audiences, who believe in a sense of fair play—but he was too agreeable with her on several issues. He began by dodging the questions on whether he thought Merkel was actually damaging the country—something he has said on the campaign trail.
The debate was also criticized for the topics that were left out, including the environment, education, digitalization, the euro—and Brexit. Britain leaving the bloc didn’t get a single mention.
The migration issue quickly became the focus of the debate, with Merkel forced to defend herself against Schulz’s accusations that she’d failed to involve Germany’s EU partners in the decision to accept of over a million refugees since 2015. Merkel said she had little choice, was unable to contemplate a situation where she would have closed Germany’s borders, and said while mistakes had been made, she would take the same decision again. The message was clear: Merkel has been the boss in the hot seat.
Another big topic where they were on the same page was immigrant integration—both agreed that Germany had a poor track record when it came to integrations and the process would take years.
As for questions about the diesel scandal and the misbehavior of the car industry, Schulz missed the chance to really attack Merkel, who declared herself extremely angry with car company bosses, who’d endangered 800,000 industry jobs.
Schulz took a hard-line approach the subject of Turkey, and its leader president Tayyip Recep Erdogan, who has now arrested 12 German citizens in recent months. Schulz said if he became chancellor, he’d cancel all negotiations with Turkey over its entry into the European Union. Merkel, ever the diplomat, answered that she didn’t want to break off diplomatic relations with the country, but said Turkey should not become an EU member (paywall).
Moving on from Ergogan, Schulz tried to differentiate himself from the chancellor by insisting Donald Trump was not the right leader to solve the problem of North Korean leader Kim Yong-un,” calling Trump ”a person who rules by tweets, that does not manage to distance himself from the Nazi mob.” Merkel, the world leader, refused to be drawn, saying we need a peaceful solution, but we can’t do it without the US president.
Schulz, who’s billed himself as a man of the people, failed to make Merkel lose her footing, as it became clear he didn’t have the savagery or the cunning to gain the upper hand over the German leader. “Looking back, we will probably say that the TV debate was the moment that Martin Schulz definitively lost the election,” said Hubertus Vollmer for NTV.