Turkey’s place in Europe was in the spotlight during the only televised debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger Martin Schulz on Sunday evening (3 September), which featured few other questions relating to the EU.
There was no mention of Brexit during the hour-and-a-half-long debate ahead of Germany’s general election, taking place on 24 September.
Neither candidate mentioned reform proposals from French President Emmanuel Macron that include a common eurozone budget and a finance minister for the 19 countries that use the euro—a plan that will need Germany’s support to take off.
Instead, Merkel and Schulz sparred at length over Turkey and migration. Schulz said he will stop Turkey’s accession process to become an EU member if he becomes chancellor.
The two candidates then spent the rest of the debate fielding questions on a checklist of domestic issues, ranging from the retirement age to gay marriage and Germany’s powerful car industry.
Merkel comes out on top
Unlike in the high-stakes French and Dutch elections this year, neither candidate for the German chancellory wants to take the country out of the EU. Schulz has often touted his European credentials: he was president of the European Parliament until earlier this year.
Three weeks before the election, Merkel still has a comfortable lead. Her centre-right Christian Democratic Union is 14 points ahead of Schulz’s SPD, the junior coalition member in government, according to one poll from Saturday (2 September). Candidates from smaller parties did not participate in the debate.
The televised showdown with Schulz isn’t likely to jolt Merkel’s grip on the chancellory. But it might have swayed some viewers.
53% of people polled by public broadcaster ZDF after the debate said they would prefer Merkel as chancellor, as opposed to 60% of those who were polled before. But Merkel still came out on top: 32% of people polled thought she was better in the debate, while 29% favoured Schulz.
Another poll from broadcaster ARD showed Merkel scoring better than Schulz on questions relating to foreign policy, migration and the labour market.
Clash over Turkey and migration
Their most glaring clash was over Turkey.
“A point has been reached where no German citizen can safely travel to Turkey anymore. A point has been reached where we have to stop the economic and financial relationship, the customs union and the accession talks to the European Union. We can’t do that alone, we have to talk to our European partners about that,” Schulz said.
In response, Merkel said she wants to freeze the EU’s pre-accession funds to Turkey and will not enhance the bloc’s customs union with Turkey. But she stopped short of calling for more drastic steps.
“I don’t have the intention of breaking off diplomatic relations with Turkey just because we are competing to see who is tougher in our election campaign,” Merkel said. She added that she would talk to other European leaders to see if Turkey’s accession talks should stop.
Relations between the two countries have become frazzled over the last year. Turkish authorities have arrested German journalists and human rights activists. A total of 55 Germans are in jail in Turkey. Twelve of them were arrested on political grounds.
In a long back-and-forth over migration, Schulz criticised Merkel for ignoring other European countries when she allowed over one million refugees to enter Germany in 2015.
“I thought it was right that we said in this situation, ‘They can come,’” Schulz said. “But involving our European neighbours earlier would have been better,” he scolded.
Merkel’s decision to act without support from other EU countries was a “mistake”, he said. Schulz argued that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, the chair of Poland’s governing right-wing party PiS, are retaliating now by refusing to take in refugees. As a result, those leaders are putting a burden on Germany to continue to allow more refugees to enter the country, he said.
Merkel defended her actions in 2015. But she conceded that Germany did not pay enough attention to improving conditions in Lebanon, Turkey and other countries that took in large amounts of refugees, as a way to prevent them from continuing on to Germany.
“That will never happen like that again,” she said.
Merkel also fought off criticism of the EU’s agreement last year with Turkey. Under that deal, Turkey takes back refugees who leave its borders and arrive in EU countries.
“I still think it’s absolutely right,” she said.
Points of agreement
Aside from the more heated debates over Turkey and migration, the two candidates often offered polite answers to moderators’ questions. Sometimes, they agreed.
Merkel and Schulz both emphasised they they will fight radicalisation of potential terrorists and want to improve police work after a botched reaction to last year’s attack at a Berlin Christmas market. Merkel defended her government’s reaction to the diesel scandal that has involved German carmakers—Schulz offered little criticism.
During closing remarks, Merkel regretted that the debate didn’t focus enough on issues she said will be important during the next four-year term. Technological developments will shake up the job market, she warned.
Schulz signed off with a call for social equality and a strong Europe.
Europe “awkwardly” absent
Shortly after Merkel and Schulz stepped off stage, Christian Lindner, the head of the liberal Free Democratic Party, suggested the debate was boring. He criticised Merkel and Schulz for saying little on the euro, digitalisation, energy or education. The FDP was in a coalition with the CDU until 2013 and is trailing behind the SPD at 8%.
SPD supporters in Brussels also hoped the candidates might focus more on Europe.
“Europe is awkwardly silent at the moment in the German campaign,” said Gerrit Krause, a 28-year-old policy advisor at the Party of European Socialists and a board member of the Brussels chapter of the SPD’s youth organisation, the Young Socialists. The group organised a public viewing of the debate at a local bar.
“It’s a very national campaign,” he said.