It may have lacked the histrionics and bear-pit ambience of Westminster’s prime minister’s questions, but Angela Merkel’s first question and answer session with MPs was nothing if not groundbreaking.
Taking its steer from the weekly sessions in the UK parliament, the hour-long session on Wednesday marked the first time a German chancellor had been required to interact directly with opposition MPs.
Under the new format, which was agreed to by the coalition government that assumed power in March, questions and answers were limited to a maximum time of one minute each. A three-colour system – green for go, yellow for 30 seconds left, and red for stop – helped steer the proceedings under the watchful eye of the Bundestag’s speaker, Wolfgang Schäuble.
Journalists and other spectators who filled the visitor gallery looked on with glee, hoping that the new addition would make for a spectacle a good deal livelier than the average Bundestag assembly.
Standing for the full 60 minutes, Merkel delivered her answers with ease; no doubt there would have been more squirming had follow-up questions been allowed.
“What a shame it’s now over,” she smirked after Schäuble called time. “But I’ll be back.” She has four months to prepare for the next Kanzler Fragestunde – or chancellor’s question time – which is scheduled to be held three times a year.
The first 20 minutes of the first session were focused on the being held in Quebec this week, which Merkel admitted would be difficult owing to burgeoning strains between the US and other members over , the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
She rejected the suggestion, made by a member of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, that Russia should be invited back into the G7 fold having been banished after its from Ukraine. Merkel also dismissed calls by the same party for her resignation over her refugee policy, which saw almost 1 million refugees enter Germany in 2015, saying that the country had “acted very responsibly in an exceptional situation”.
The jokes were few and far between. A far-left Die Linke politician quipped that Donald Trump revealed more to Playboy than he did to his allies, and Merkel teased the Social Democrats that they were not in a position to criticise policies they had supported in opposition. All in all it lacked genuine confrontation or drama.
The furniture of the Bundestag does not lend itself to such behaviour. The room is airy and spacious, without the cramped intimacy of the House of Commons, which forces eye contact and encourages the cut and thrust between political opponents. Merkel chose not to go to the central lectern, standing shyly in front of her seat.
Other topics ranged from diesel emissions and rent hikes, to the number of women in parliament and child poverty – offering a broad overview of what concerns the average German. Meanwhile over in London, as one German commentator observed, PMQs was fixated on one topic: Brexit.