Merkel and Schulz deliver a masterclass in stability

It ran for getting on to 100 minutes, covered issues from Turkey’s chances of EU membership to the raising (or not) of the pension age, but in the end the television debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz could be summed up in one word: Musterfeststellungsklage.

Even by German standards this one is a cracker. Establishing an exact translation for non-native speakers is even more of a brain teaser. Try and think along the lines of “motion for a declaratory judgment” or “petition for a sample proceeding”. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Yet at one point in Sunday night’s primetime face-off between the two leading candidates in Germany’s general election campaign, the chancellor and her Social Democrat challenger could talk of little else. Viewers lost count of the number of references to you-know-what as they crossed swords over what to do for car owners whose diesel vehicles had lost value thanks to the shenanigans of the manufacturers. (For the record: the legal instrument they were spatting about is the means for establishing the groundwork for something akin to a class-action lawsuit.)

For anyone with a passing knowledge of German public life, the parsing of judicial process is wearingly familiar. The country has a highly legalistic culture that reveres detail and process. As such, the Merkel-Schulz set-to was in keeping with the style and tone of German political debate, something of a masterclass in showcasing the country’s solid and serious approach.

Yet this year’s TV debate was no normal occasion. Unlike past confrontations, this one garnered much more international attention. With Germany now cast in the role of bastion of stability and leader of the free world, many more people are following the election, ahead of the September 24 poll. To help them, Deutsche Welle, the state-owned foreign-language broadcaster, live-streamed the debate in English. The Twittersphere was on hand to provide its characteristic flourish of erudition, moderation and wise counsel.

They must have been thrilled. Forget the vicious, circus-like atmosphere of much political debate elsewhere: the cage fighting of a Trump v Hillary bout; the snippy put-downs of political set pieces in Britain; or the icy confrontation of a Macron v Le Pen rendezvous. Instead, settle down for a courteous, often consensual exchange of views. The range of topics also raised a few eyebrows. A long section on migration, which, believe it or not, is not top of the list of issues concerning German voters right now; a bit of friendly knockabout over road tolls; how to handle the Turkish president and the approach towards Islam. If you were after a substantial view on the eurozone or how to stand up to Russia; if you wanted to learn something about the future of education or the challenge of digitalisation to Europe’s biggest economy; or even just one mention of Brexit — then German TV on Sunday night was not the place to find it.

Some no doubt see this as a good thing. Given the frenzied nature and tone of global politics these days, a bit of plodding stability is a welcome break. And it is not as if Germany has not provided enough fireworks in the past — something its political class is only too aware of and often addresses with a studiously measured, at times controlling, response.

Perhaps. Another thing one might draw from Sunday’s tête-à-tête was that it did little to banish the spectre that after too many years of grand coalition between Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Mr Schulz’s SPD, voters are being offered few real choices. One received wisdom of this so far rather dull campaign is that the real question is which party comes third and thus determines the make-up of the next coalition government.

A more telling revelation came at the end of the debate when, in her closing statement, the chancellor took a stab at those future challenges — from artificial intelligence to globalisation — facing Germany. In a country that is, to quote Mr Schulz, prosperous but in which not everyone is prosperous, such concerns may not be front of mind right now. That will change. And then — who knows — may well be the subject of the next “TV-Duell” in four years’ time. Be sure to tune in, and invite a lawyer friend.

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