Opinion: Angela Merkel′s first ′Question Time′ a sterile spinoff of Britain′s PMQs | Opinion | DW | 06.06.2018
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Opinion

Opinion: Angela Merkel's first 'Question Time' a sterile spinoff of Britain's PMQs

It was billed as Germany's answer to Prime Minister's Questions in the UK — one hour with Angela Merkel answering direct questions in the Bundestag. PMQs addict Mark Hallam wasn't captivated by the inaugural session.

Sixty minutes, 30 questions, 30 answers, and 30 reminders of what Germany already knew: Chancellor Angela Merkel is far better at coherently and cautiously answering tough political questions than she is at captivating an audience.

Live television coverage of the first-ever session of lawmakers posing direct questions to a sitting chancellor often caught the politicians and the viewers in the gallery looking at their smartphones or their feet even in the midst of hitherto unprecedented parliamentary cut and thrust. 

Read more: Angela Merkel stresses media freedoms as Deutsche Welle celebrates 65 years

At no point did the chancellor really seem rattled or riled (except for one slightly terse exchange with an AfD politician about the ongoing asylum scandal), and nor did she take any opportunities to score any major points against rival politicians or parties. Instead, hands clasped firmly in a diamond around her midriff, Merkel proceeded to answer questions in an understated and non-committal manner. To the chancellor, it probably felt like an extended press conference akin to those she regularly faces with visiting world leaders, only with more familiar faces asking the questions. 

A great many of the 30 questions would have served the purpose, but let's take one on rapidly rising German rent prices, put to Merkel by a Left party politician, as an example: Merkel, with a minute on the clock as for all the other issues, began by saying how rent was an important issue for the coalition government. She then said it was important to build more houses, to do more to protect tenants, and to procure and secure more land for development. She concluded by saying the coalition would be working intensively on all these issues but that there was much still to do and many difficult challenges lying in wait. 

It's a cogent, concise, competent answer to an almost impossibly large question (especially for 60 seconds). But it's hardly political theater. 

Read more: What is the role of Germany's parliamentary opposition?

Questions too big, answers impossible

Perhaps, in hindsight, it was unfortunate that this inaugural event took place right before a G7 summit. The first half was dedicated to G7-related issues, making the topics enormous and unwieldy. 

Merkel was asked whether Russia or Trump's US were reliable partners, whether she should take a tougher line on China, or the climate, whether it was a mistake to eject Russia from the then-G8 after it annexed Crimea. It became a whistle-stop tour of German foreign policy, in which Merkel preached moderation in almost all things.

She demonstrated an impressive command of all the issues, but not even Merkel's staunchest critics would question her grasp of the subject matter. After 13 years in the job, you'd now expect it of her, but she's always been impressively encyclopedic.

Adversarial element lacking

Several of the things that differentiate Germany's parliament from Britain's — and usually for the better — help explain why "Chancellor's Question Time" was a second-rate spinoff of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons. 

First and foremost, the adversarial element was absent. The weekly highlight of PMQs in Britain is the six questions, usually all asked in succession, put to the prime minister by the leader of the opposition.

That's the weekly joust across the despatch box, that's where prime ministers can rise and fall. That's when you hear a young David Cameron, just starting as leader of the Conservative Party, stake his claim to the crown by telling a graying Tony Blair: "He used to be the future." Fifteen years earlier, it had been a young Blair tormenting John Major over Conservative Party divisions over Europe, quipping: "I lead my party, he follows his."

Even the famously unflappable Harold Macmillan, the smoothest of all Conservative operators in the 1950s, confided that he felt physically sick before PMQs.

Theresa May in the House of Commons

PMQs in the UK can be a grueling experience for prime ministers, but the whole atmosphere is different

Even the shape of the room demonstrates this. Britain's prime minister stands opposite their opponent, addressing them "across the aisle," rather than speaking to the Bundestag's inclusive semi-circle of members.

The latest edition of the "grand coalition" also compounds the lack of confrontation: Merkel's Christian Democrats rule alongside their traditional rivals, the Social Democrats. If Germany's two biggest parties were to assume a government and opposition role, questions would surely have been more spicy.

The Bundestag is also an altogether more civil place than the House of Commons. Politicians are not forbidden from clapping, meaning the House of Commons tradition of jeering — or cheering — certain comments has not evolved. President of the Bundestag Wolfgang Schäuble barely had to interject in an almost harmonious atmosphere. That situation could hardly be further removed from the raucous one facing the Speaker of the House John Bercow each Wednesday in the UK, prompting a series of legendary put-downs that are often the highlight of the session. 

But perhaps, with time, German lawmakers will learn how these sessions can work and crucially, what type of questions to ask. For, at PMQs, big is not always best.

While Merkel was tackling a litany of topics without a major slip-up but also without offering any truly new insight, her British counterpart was experiencing a rockier ride.

The main takeaway from Wednesday's concurrent PMQs was frighteningly simple by comparison: Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn asked Prime Minister Theresa May when her cabinet would finally present parliament with a Brexit white paper. May could not answer.

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