Why is the German election campaign, which reaches its climax this month, so utterly dull, I asked my friend while strolling through the streets of Berlin's Mitte district. "Well," he shrugged, "this is a German campaign — what do you expect? It is bound to be solid but lacklustre." Here we go again, I thought, the old excuse that Germans just don't do excitement, they do reliability, and do it well. What did I expect? Quite simply: a theme, or maybe just an ounce of political courage that would turn this campaign into a debate or even a battle of ideas. After all, is this not what one should expect of a country that has become accustomed to seeing itself as the epitome of the European social model, or even, in the context of the current economic crisis, an example to the whole world?
Hang on a minute, cautioned my friend, Germany already has a new European face, and we're standing right in the middle of it — just take a look around you. And I did. I saw the shiny new ministries and embassies right by Norman Foster's reconstructed Reichstag, across from the Brandenburg Gate, I saw Spanish tourists delighted to find the cheapest cappuccino in any Western European capital, I saw hip young Americans on their way to an art installation that promised to be more radical than anything they had seen in Brooklyn or Shoreditch. Wasn't this Germany's happy new European face?
I turned round. Under a red and white parasol sat a solitary, slightly comic figure: a man in his late fifties, in shorts and sandals, resting from the late summer heat and fanning himself with a few papers — a campaigner for the centre-left Social Democrats. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat foreign minister and candidate for chancellor, had just unveiled his campaign team, a solid, if slightly bland line-up of little-known functionaries and backbenchers. Was this exhausted veteran before me an honest image of what the Social Democrats — one half of the present coalition government — had at its disposal to confront Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, which is far ahead in the polls? When Steinmeier claimed that Germany can create a total of four million jobs in the next decade and eradicate unemployment by 2020, rival parties predictably heaped criticism on his "Germany Plan", describing it as a vague socialist fantasy, a demonstration not of strength but of impotence. I didn't dare to confront the old campaigner, now resting languidly on a fold-up chair, with accusations of impotence.