Highlights and Takeaways from the Merkel-Schulz Debate

The German party leaders had their only debate before the election later this month.

German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz during a televised debate, September 3
German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz during a televised debate, September 3 (DPA)

German chancellor Angela Merkel debated Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrats, on television tonight. It was the party leaders’ only debate before the election later this month.

Here are my highlights and takeaways.

  • Schulz lamented that for too many Germans life is too precious. He proposed tax relief for middle incomes, free child care and higher child benefits. Merkel pointed out that unemployment has come down from five to 1.2 million under her watch. She campaigns for bigger tax cuts but a smaller increase in child benefits.
  • On immigration, neither candidate looked strong. Schulz’ criticism of Merkel for “allowing” her ally Horst Seehofer to invite Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to Bavaria was petty. Merkel’s defense of her open-door immigration policy — we had no choice because other European countries wouldn’t help — confirmed suspicions that she was overtaken by events.
  • Schulz argued that the EU should withhold funds from countries that refuse to shelter asylum seekers, such as Hungary and Poland.
  • On integration, both were refreshingly honest. Merkel said Islam belongs to Germany, even though two-thirds of Germans disagree. Schulz cautioned that integrating a million people could take a generation.
  • I don’t expect Schulz’ claim that immigrants are valuable to Germany, because they help restore faith in the European ideal, will go over well with the precarious middle-income voters he is trying to reach, though.
  • The two candidates agreed Europe should play a bigger role in world affairs. Schulz, the former head of the European Parliament, took American president Donald Trump to task for failing to distance himself from neo-Nazi protesters. Merkel said that Trump’s remarks after the altercations in Charlottesville, Virginia had left her “speechless”, but she also said the world needs America as a force for peace.
  • Merkel cautioned against suspending EU membership talks with Turkey before there is a Europe-wide consensus. Schulz played bad cop and said he would immediately withdraw from the negotiations. Fourteen German nationals are currently held in Turkey on charges of supporting terrorism.
  • Schulz refused to rule out a left-wing coalition with Die Linke, a party that Merkel considers just as extreme as the far-right Alternative for Germany.
  • Schulz had the most powerful closing statement, pointing out that in the same sixty seconds he was given to make his final argument, a nurse earns only 40 cents but a manager at a big corporation €30. Merkel rattled off various challenges before arguing her experience made her the right person to lead Germany for four more years.