Opinion: the Merkel/Schulz ‘duel’ was dull, but that’s a good thing.

It was labelled by the German press as ‘das Duell’. Yet Merkel and Schulz agreed on all the major issues, and the former emerged as the clear victor. But in the current political climate, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky argues the uninspired debate was a ‘gift from heaven’.

By Max Caskie

Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz pictured with Jean-Claude Juncker. 

Christian Lindner, the FDP party leader, quipped that the debate was like, ‘a long marriage, where there is the occasional quarrel, but both sides know that they have to stick together in the future, too.’ The disagreements were centred around Trump, Turkey’s EU accession and the migrant crisis.

Despite these potential flashpoints, Schulz failed to seize the initiative and delineate himself from his opponent. That the pair agreed on most of the major issues led to it being called ‘more a duet than a duel’.

Yet Bershidsky posits that this consensus is good news: there is enough polarisation taking place elsewhere. For example, the Netherlands has yet to form a government ‘based on the outcome of the general election held in March…the coalition talks are the longest in 40 years’.

The same deep divisions can be seen with Brexit which ‘shows no signs of subsiding’, and in the US, where people are still unclear as to what ‘Trump’s victory and his presidency are about’. Even Macron, the supposed new face of politics, has become aware of the number of people who used their vote tactically to keep Le Pen out.

In contrast, despite the German incumbent coalition’s ‘fatigue after ruling jointly for the last four years’, there doesn’t seem to be a strong alternative coalition structure.

So, is the Economist right to label the duel as a failure and a lack of a ‘clash of ideas’? Bershidsky says not, and the evidence is in the lack of support for more radical parties: Die Linke and Alternative for Germany (AfD) only have 15-20 percent combined support.

This is less than Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD) hold 23 percent and a lot less than Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) with 40 percent. Given these figures, it appears most Germans are happy with the status quo.

The desire for ‘more of the same’ was obvious when discussing foreign policy, a stage on which Germany has tried hard to play a minor role on in recent times. Neither Schulz or Merkel were ‘interested in Ukraine or North Korea, and Russia only came up once…’ Any ground that Schulz tried to gain over Turkey, where 12 Germans are currently imprisoned as political prisoners, dealt no decisive blows to Merkel. The duel showed that both the SPD and the CDU are, for the most part, focused on a ‘rather tame domestic agenda’.

Overall, Bershidsky says that ‘the German press ought to hold the criticism.’ Many other countries in the West are faced with ideological crises and deep political cleavages. Merkel and Schulz’s difficulties lie only in how to provide more of the same stability that their coalition has become synonymous with.

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