Prime time debates with few prime time ideas

The televised debates sum up Germany's election campaign perfectly: they have been strangely devoid of proposals, and filled with reactiveness.

It’s finally happening, but blink and you’ll miss it! After weeks of complaints that nothing has been happening, Germany has well and truly entered campaign season, and with a bang!

Of course, the German election campaign has, in reality, been underway for some weeks now, with candidates touring across Germany to speak on market squares and giving interviews to anyone who would listen. But it was this week that the party’s candidates set out to charm the nation.

It all began on Sunday with the one and only Kanzlerduell which saw Chancellor Angela Merkel face off against her main contender, Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The German public was barely given any time to recover from the war of words because the very next evening, representatives of the five smaller parties most likely to get into the Bundestag had their own prime-time showdown.

The week was rounded up by Schulz’s interview with popular Youtubers (Merkel had already gone through this process last month). The parties are doing everything to engage voters – even the youth, which are becoming an increasingly negligible political force, as it emerged that a whopping 50 percent of all Germans registered to vote this year are over 52 years old.

So, what did we learn from the various debates this week?

We’ve already analysed the party manifestos, but for an ordinary person it would take 17 hours to read them all. Therefore we can safely assume most voters will be swayed by what is said rather than what is written.

During the Kanzlerduell, foreign policy played a prominent role, with one hour of the 90 minute debate focusing on various topics regarding external relations. And by far the biggest topic of the night was Germany’s relationship with Turkey.  

Schulz said very clearly that if he becomes chancellor he will end the EU’s accession negotiations with Turkey, a surprisingly clear statement for a German social democrat. Merkel also took a strong stance, but was a little more diplomatic. She underlined that, contrary to Schulz, she had never supported Turkey’s bid to be an EU member state anyway, and that ending the negotiations needed to be a common EU decision, rather than just a German one.

But that was basically it – no discussion of the future of Europe (which the next chancellor will have to develop with French President Emmanuel Macron), no mention of Brexit either, or Germany’s future relationship with Russia or the US.

If, from a European perspective, the debate was disappointing, then from a security policy point of view, it was abysmal. It seemed as if the candidates had a bet going about just how long they could manage to discuss foreign policy without mentioning strategy or military policy once – now we all know, the answer is 60 minutes.

The five smaller parties’ the next day weren’t much better. Admittedly, this round was focused predominantly on domestic policy issues. Yet, the candidate from the populist, anti-European Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to randomly use the EU as punching bag, criticising European policy towards Greece, and the Green party co-chair, Cem Özdemir, mentioned the EU in passing when discussing migration. The only candidate to make a substantial argument about foreign policy was Christian Lindner, the head of the Liberal Democrats, who started a fierce debate about the question of US nuclear weapons being stationed in Germany and German Russia policy. Lindner’s exchanges with Özdemir represented the only part of the debate in which candidates attempted to formulate a strategic vision of how German-Russian relations may look like in future.

The two debates sum up this year’s campaign perfectly: they have been strangely devoid of proposals or strategy, and filled with reactiveness and defiance.

It is puzzling that all are disregarding Germany’s role as the largest European country and the one best able to influence the EU’s direction. Given that most EU member states sees Germany as the by far most influential country within Europe, this should come as a surprise.

Yes, the world is increasingly complex and unpredictable and no strategy will make it from the drawing board into the real world unaltered. But if voters aren’t even presented with a strategy or vision, then German parties are failing in their duty to German citizens.

Merkel successfully built her reputation as “Mutti” −  the mother that takes care of things, so you don’t have to worry about them. She has been the captain that navigates the ship successfully through the storm, while most of its passengers barely felt a jolt.

But if this is how the captain is occupying its time, then it is the crew’s role is to make sure they know where the ship is headed. And after a week of debates we are none the wiser. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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