Last night’s TV debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz poses a nagging question for British conservatives. No, nothing to do with Brexit – the subject wasn’t even mentioned. Rather, why was Theresa May so afraid of going toe to toe with Jeremy Corbyn before the General Election? If only she’d done a Merkel and faced off her main rival on television, she might have won a decent majority – just as Merkel looks set to do in three weeks’ time.
Like May, Merkel is widely (and quite rightly) regarded as an uninspiring public speaker. Like Corbyn, Schulz is an assured performer, with a polished ‘man of the people’ shtick. Ever since David Cameron ducked out of a head-to-head with Ed Miliband in 2015, British politicians have regarded TV debates as an unnecessary risk for the incumbent – especially if, like Merkel, the incumbent has a commanding lead. Merkel’s adept performance in last night’s debate showed that competent incumbents have nothing to fear from the cameras – and that centre-right logic will always trump the rhetoric of the centre-left. Schulz spoke eloquently for social justice and against inequality. Germany is a prosperous country but not all Germans are prosperous, he declared. This was a good line, but facts and figures are even better. Since Merkel became Chancellor, she reminded him, unemployment has halved.
Schulz was always bound to put in a strong showing on the sort of stage where he feels most at home. Merkel, conversely, has never relished these encounters. In 2005, she went into her first TV-Duel (as Germans call it) with a comfortable lead over SPD leader (and Chancellor) Gerhard Schroeder, did poorly and won the election by a mere whisker. Twelve years later, Merkel has a big lead again, this time as the incumbent. This was Schulz’s best chance to land a knockout blow. Did he manage it? In a word, Nein.
Schulz came across as presidential, a viable alternative to Merkel should she ever step under the proverbial Autobus – but his big problem is that his party has actually been in government with Merkel for eight of her twelve years as Chancellor. From 2005 to 2009, and again from 2013 to 2017, her conservative Christian Democratic Union has governed Germany in a ‘Grand Coalition’ with Schulz’s left-leaning SPD. Hence, it’s hard for him to criticise anything she’s done without her reminding him that his party had a part in it. Imagine Cameron debating with Nick Clegg after eight years in coalition.
This was the pattern of last night’s debate, in which Schulz struggled to find clear blue water between himself and the Kanzlerin. ‘If I become German Chancellor, I will stop accession talks with Turkey,’ he said. A bold move – only trouble is, the current Chancellor agrees with him. ‘Turkey should not become a member of the EU,’ she concurred. Schulz railed against Trump’s government by Tweet, but Merkel was also robust in her criticisms of The Donald. ‘We have major differences with the US President,’ she said.
Schulz claimed Merkel would raise retirement to seventy – Merkel was happy to refute this ‘with absolute certainty.’ Likewise both candidates condemned the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal (in which German motor manufacturers such as Volkswagen have admitted cheating in emissions tests) but neither candidate is willing to abandon diesel altogether. Merkel’s Achilles Heel is immigration, but it’s hard to attack this policy from the left (Schulz was President of the EU Parliament when she allowed a million migrants into Germany). ‘Integrating one million people is a generational task,’ he said gravely. Merkel agreed with him. ‘New challenges require new approaches,’ she said.
Rather than opposing everything Merkel stands for, Schulz would actually be most comfortable as her deputy in another Grand Coalition. And if she wins a large (rather than an overwhelming) majority, that’s probably exactly where he’ll end up. No wonder the Green Party has accused the Grand Coalition of duelling against itself. With the CDU on around 40 per cent and the SPD on around 25 per cent, a third of voters have deserted the two main parties. The Greens and Germany’s hard left party, Die Linke, are both polling around 10 per cent, as are the anti-immigration party, Alternative fur Deutschland, now set to enter the Bundestag for the first time. While Britain reverts to two party politics, German politics is fragmenting.
Slowly but steadily, the CDU/SPD share of the vote has been shrinking – from three quarters twenty years ago to around two thirds today. More and more voters are tiring of Germany’s consensual centre-left/centre-right politics, yet Merkels’s narrow win in this debate may well ensure more of the same on 24th September. Mutti will win again in three weeks’ time and Schulz may end up with a leading role in her cabinet, but neither her CDU nor his SPD are as powerful as they once were.