A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Dull and Duller

In their one and only public debate Angela Merkel and her challenger Martin Schulz skipped difficult issues.
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Sunday’s televised “Chancellor Duel” featured two candidates who claim to offer competing visions for Germany’s future. But with both determined to be polite, it was difficult to see where – or if – they actually differ.

© REUTERS TV/Handout

When movie director Alfred Hitchcock was asked for his recipe for suspense, he said that a good film should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension. After sacrificing 97 non-refundable minutes of my life to watch the so-called “Chancellor Duel” on Sunday evening, I can reveal the secret to German pre-election political debate: start with agreement and slowly increase the agreement.

Back in the day, a duel involved a difference of opinion: two revolvers and someone bleeding to death at dawn. Even if none of this is available today – though reality television is catching up all the time – the least you can expect in a “duel” is some dispute.

This doesn’t mean the wall-to-wall insults of the US debate season. But is dispute such a dirty word? Are creative sparks too much to expect in an election that, in another flagrant misnomer, is called a “Wahlkampf” – an election battle? I have had greater battles getting a knife through warm butter.

The problem is that, after eight years as grand coalition partners since 2005, Germany’s two big parties are incapable of duels, disagreements, or battles. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz specialize in sticky, stifling consensus. That was the lesson from their one and only encounter across four television stations and many more radio stations.

Struggling to close a 14-point gap with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) ahead of the September 24 poll, this was Schulz’s first and last attempt to score a few points against the German leader. And he blew it. Afraid of coming across as aggressive – Germans don’t like aggressive, particularly not a man against a woman – Schulz followed the advice of an expensive adviser and smiled his way through the evening.

For all that smiling, he never got to any criticism, polite or not. And there is enough to criticize, starting with the argument that Merkel is too fixated on being popular in the present to prepare Germany for the future.

Of course, voters don’t reward anyone for the future, and the public mood in the present is hugely self-satisfied. Germany’s economy is purring nicely at 1.6 percent growth, and the 4 percent jobless rate is a post-unification low. Everything is fine in Germany, particularly when you look at the chaos elsewhere.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

But traveling Germany for the campaign, I’m struck by how many people mention the same concern to me: what goes up must come down, particularly if your economy is one quarter based on an industry – cars – that has been exposed as conning its customers on a global scale.

Even without the emissions fraud meltdown, Germany’s car companies are in danger of missing e-mobility turn-off. If that happens, 800,000 jobs are at risk, and Germany’s economy – and Europe with it – will hit the wall.

Then there’s demographics: by mid-century, half of Germany’s population will be older than 51. A little belt-tightening might be worth talking about at election time. But given the huge influence of older voters, the country’s doomed pension system remains untouched.

There is also much to debate concerning Merkel’s Energiewende, announced after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, which requires Germany to go nuclear-free by 2021. Her renewables gamble could yet succeed, but if it fails Germany’s industrial backbone is in peril.

Risks are also mounting in the so-called digital transition, as German industry struggles with a telecommunications infrastructure slower than Albania’s. A stronger euro in the coming years, meanwhile, will make expensive German products less competitive on world markets. There’s a two-tier health system, missed climate targets, a housing crisis in major cities, and a huge tax burden.

In short, the future risks for the German economic engine are everywhere, and that’s before we factor in risks from Brexit and US protectionism.

Softly-Softly

These issues were barely mentioned on Sunday night, and while Schulz criticized Merkel’s softly-softly political style as lacking vision and leadership, he rarely hammered home his point with more examples.

He got close to where he should be by poking holes in Merkel’s unilateral refugee approach, which let neighboring European countries off the hook. He also forced her on the defensive over Turkey by saying he would demand an end to EU accession talks amid Turkey’s slide toward autocracy and the jailing of 14 German citizens.

Yet even then Merkel insisted – with a straight face – she was not going to engage in “tough talking … just because we are in an election.” Well – if not now, when?

The German leader said she was “shocked” by Germany’s car industry diesel manipulation, but gave no idea here the industry should be in ten years. Nor did she explain where she believes the EU should be after Brexit. On Donald Trump, Merkel declined to say if she thought the United States still played a leadership role in the world. Instead she promised to push the US to come around to the need for a “sensible” diplomatic solution with North Korea.

In the midst of all this, Schulz could have taken a step back and pointed out Merkel’s political trick: she forever floats somewhere between the present continuous and the near future. It’s neither here nor there. But he didn’t, and when Merkel described herself as representing “a party of centrist moderation … working for sustainable solutions,” Schulz had nowhere to go.

Without kicking up a fuss, or smashing any porcelain as he goes, the SPD leader wants to be a centrist chancellor of Germany. But that vacancy is taken.