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OPINION & ANALYSIS

What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?
Anne Will (centre) hosts her Sunday night roundtable talk show on 24th July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/NDR | Wolfgang Borrs

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany’s ruthless housing market is tough on new tenants – but there are winners

Germany may be falling short of its homebuilding target but still positively stands out in comparison to other European countries. Brian Melican explains why things are not so grim for both buyers and renters - unless you are a new tenant.

OPINION: Germany's ruthless housing market is tough on new tenants - but there are winners

So it’s now official. This week, Federal Housing Minister Klara Gleywitz admitted that Germany will not achieve the target of 400,000 new homes annually laid out in the coalition agreement. It’s decent of Ms. Gleywitz to come clean here – decent and wholly necessary, because the target, already over-ambitious when conceived, had begun to look more like a pie-in-the-sky five-year plan out of a command economy than something a minister should remain committed to. 

Even in pre-war times, ramping up home-building to that degree would have been nigh-on impossible. In 2020, after a decade of lowest-ever interest rates and benign market conditions, the construction industry was running at full capacity and produced 306,000 new homes. That was the sector’s best effort in the best of all economic worlds, and by 2021, completions had declined to 293,000 due to a dearth of suitable property and a lack of builders. So it is no surprise that, since the inauguration of her new ministry – created to demonstrate just how serious the new government was about housing – Gleywitz has never offered a credible account of just how a sector facing a desperate shortage of land and labour should up its output by almost 50 percent.

It’s important to remember, too, that homes are completed several years after they are first planned. So figures for 2022 (down to 250,000) represent the market as it was between, say, 2017 and 2019 – i.e. back in the halcyon days of milk, honey, and limitless finance. And even then, applications for permits were falling back. In the intervening years, the climate has got considerably worse. After a pandemic shock in 2020 and anaemic German economic performance in 2021, in 2022, Russia’s attack on the Ukraine sent the materials market haywire, interest rates soaring, and economic confidence tumbling. The result was that, within months, applications for construction permits declined yet further – and permits do not automatically translate into completions, either, especially as scarcer materials or increased costs lead to projects being delayed or cancelled.

READ ALSO: How property prices in Germany are sinking dramatically

Flats near the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

Flats near the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Kahnert

An impossible target

The only surprise about Gleywitz’ admission is that she is still clinging to the 400,000 target for 2024 when housebuilding activity has dropped so sharply. Maybe she’s discovered a secret stock of energy-intensive building materials produced at pre-gas-crisis prices (because they’re not going to get cheaper again any time soon), or maybe she’s betting on immigrant labourers returning in their droves despite the fact that we treat them like dirt (not bloody likely!).

Regardless, my hunch is that 2022 will represent the high-watermark for the whole of the coming decade. Indeed, I defy anyone to look at the statistics on construction costs, borrowing rates, and permits issued and come to a different conclusion.

What does this mean for the years ahead? How will the shortfall affect homeowners, tenants, and landlords?

First off, we should avoid the usual apocalyptic talk of a “housing crisis”. As I’ve noted previously, Germany’s housing market is tough, but by no means as broken as that of many other European countries. If you’re looking for sky-high asset prices and corruption with rent-controlled stock, head north to Sweden; if it’s an alarming lack of secure tenancies and vulnerability to short-term interest rate spikes you’re after, Britain is our continent’s cautionary tale. Nevertheless, just because housing markets elsewhere are worse, that doesn’t make Germany’s anything to cheer about. And the prospects are about to get markedly less cheery.

READ ALSO: What experts say will happen to the housing market in 2023

House owners in prime position

The most fortunate group are existing owner-occupiers. Although property prices had become over-inflated of late and are now falling, this will not lead to a collapse in the housing market and homes being repossessed. Anyone who bought prior to the craziness of 2020-2021 financed at record-low interest rates and is fine as long as they don’t need to sell up any time soon: interest rates are generally fixed for 10 years in Germany, and for anyone who bought up to 2014, rates on re-mortgaging will still be lower than they were on purchase.

What is more, after a decade of price rises, long-standing owners are sitting on so much equity that they might actually do quite well out of a move now, selling at a mark-up and getting a bargain in return.

Keys to a flat in Germany.

Keys to a flat in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Martin Schutt

Another group who will do alright are Germany’s buy-to-let landlords, a group which grew rapidly over the last decade as borrowing was cheap and rents were rising. Most of them, too, are mortgaged for the duration and making good money out of their investments. As long as they weren’t planning to cash out any time soon, they’re fine (and, like owner-occupiers, can still exit well if they bought before 2014).

Nevertheless, 2022 was the year that put an end to leveraged buy-to-let in Germany for the foreseeable future: interest rates have shot up without property prices falling enough to compensate; and rents, heavily-regulated in Germany, cannot rise fast to make new investments attractive. This is good news for some other groups, of course: fewer prospective landlords means reduced competition for other buyers and fewer apartments being spruced up and re-let at higher rents (a boon for tenants on a budget).

READ ALSO: Is it better to buy or rent in Germany right now?

Indeed, for tenants, things could be worse: yes, rents will eventually rise as inflation puts up indexed contracts and these, in turn, drag up the averages on which other rent increases are predicated (the famed Mietenspiegel). This process, however, will take place gradually over the next few years, and tenants’ earnings will rise in that time.

We are not, mercifully, in a UK-style market of annual “rent reviews” and 28-day no-fault evictions. Although price rises will cause some discomfort for a minority, legal protections are in place and housing benefit is available; there will not be a rash of people losing their homes.

New renters get toughest deal

The shitty end of the stick, as ever, goes to anyone currently looking for a new rental. For prospective tenants, prices have already gone up as re-letting is one of scrupulous landlords’ few opportunities to account for inflation. At the same time, there are now more prospective tenants than there were last year because another unfortunate group – would-be buyers – have seen their financial calculations go up in smoke.

Looking to move? Visit our rentals section to find your next apartment to rent

The result is that couples with a young child, for instance, who, a year ago, would have bought a house are now looking for a slightly larger flat rental instead, pushing up demand while supply, as we have seen, is falling…

READ ALSO: Why falling property prices in Germany mean tougher times for tenants

Renovated flats in Greifswald

Renovated flats in Greifswald, Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Beyond interest groups, what does all this mean in the broader societal sense? Something quite simple: ministers like Gleywitz should start being honest with people. The supply of new homes will keep going down before it goes back up. Our continent is at war and the planet is burning. As such, both our government and we as citizens will have to prioritise.

State efforts will need to be focussed on rebuilding the dwindling social housing stock in order to serve the most vulnerable in society. Many others will just have to make do with a little less space or a slightly less good area than they’d like. This isn’t, however, the same kind of vote-winning message as an arbitrary new-build target, so don’t expect to hear it officially any time soon.

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