There appears to be a majority of lawmakers in Germany's parliament who want the chancellor to attend regular question and answer sessions. Even Angela Merkel herself appears to have warmed to the idea.
"Bundestag wants to grill chancellor," read Thursday's headline in the German daily "Bild." The country's top-selling tabloid isn't exactly known for mincing its words. But the fact is that although Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have long balked at the idea, it's looking more and more likely that the chancellor will have to make herself available for a parliamentary question period several times a year. Whether these sessions turn into a "grilling" remains to be seen.
A long-established tradition elsewhere
In other countries, question time has long been routine. In the UK, for example, the prime minister is bombarded with inquiries in the House of Commons every Wednesday. Question time is similarly a tradition in the Spanish parliament.
"During a parliamentary visit to Madrid, I experienced it first-hand, and it is a wonderfully democratic instrument," said Green Party politician Britta Hasselmann. It was her parliamentary group that requested such question periods in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. The matter will be up for consideration shortly after Easter. The new coalition contract agreed to by the CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left Social Democrats, specifies that the chancellor take questions from MPs three times a year.
Schneider said shortly after Germany's national elections that Merkel's reserved style gave rise to the AfD
Reviving the current question time
It's not that Germany never has question time — at the beginning of every parliamentary session, there's an allotted time for an "interrogation of the government." But it's mostly just the state secretaries from the various ministries who show up to answer previously submitted questions, usually before a handful of MPs in an almost empty assembly room. The chancellor isn't even required to take part.
At the start of the new election period in the fall of last year, the SPD was campaigning to change this staid routine. At the time, Merkel was still in negotiations to form a different coalition with the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. The SPD was getting ready for four years of leading the opposition. Thus SPD parliamentarian Carsten Schneider was particularly biting in his remarks.
"The Bundestag must once again become the main forum for political discussions. Not TV talk shows or individual interviews with journalists, madam chancellor," he said. "It's your political style that's one of the reasons why we now have a right-wing populist party here in parliament."
He was referring to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), as well as Merkel's habit of never really saying much about the most important topics up for debate. Schneider would likely have chosen his words more carefully had he known that his own party would ultimately form another grand coalition along with Merkel's conservatives.
'If I have to…'
Merkel herself is apparently no longer so vehemently against a regular question period. During a recent visit to the SPD's parliamentary party, she reportedly said that if that's the way it had to be, then she'd do it. Merkel herself shares a bit of the blame for this development. She took on the tradition of her predecessor, former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, of appearing a few times a year in the federal press conference center, a stone's throw from the Chancellery, to answer questions on any and all topics.
For Greens politician Britta Hasselmann, however, that's not satisfactory. "She'll answer questions for journalists, but not for us? That's just not right," she said.
The CDU wants to ensure that the chancellor's appearances before MPs don't become too unruly. And Merkel reportedly told the SPD that had another condition: She doesn't want the MPs to be as physically close to her as they are to the prime minister in Britain's House of Commons. Instead, she'd prefer to answer questions from the government bench.