Angela Merkel was forced to defend her controversial decision to open Germany’s borders to more than 1m asylum-seekers on Sunday as she come under pressure in a televised election debate.
Martin Schulz, the main challenger, accused the German chancellor of a “serious mistake” with her “lone decision” and said she should have worked with European allies to find a common approach.
But a defiant Mrs Merkel insisted Germany had been faced with a “very dramatic situation” and had no choice but to act.
“That is what being chancellor is about. You have to decide,” she said.
The televised debate brought to life an election that has until now seemed little more than a victory procession for Mrs Merkel.
With just three weeks until Germany votes on September 24, the debate was widely seen as Mr Schulz’s last chance to lift his flagging campaign and prove that he can mount a serious challenge to Mrs Merkel.
“Integrating a million people into German society will be the task of a generation,” he said at one point, and at another: “Integration is not something that happens on paper.”
But Mrs Merkel was able to present herself as the voice of experience, quoting detailed figures on immigration off the top of her head, and mentioning her recent conversations with other world leaders.
In Germany, the debate format is different. There is no live audience and only the leaders of the two main parties take part in what is popularly known as the “TV Duel”.
That gave Mr Schulz, who has repeatedly accused Mrs Merkel of dodging the issues, the chance to pin his opponent down.
But while he landed some telling blows against the long-serving chancellor, Mr Schulz failed to deliver the knock-out punch his campaign badly needed.
Mr Schulz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) went into the debate 14 points behind Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), according to a poll released on Saturday.
It is a gap most commentators believe is too large to make up, and there was little sign that Mr Schulz had done enough on Sunday night to change the course of the election.
In a debate that was largely dominated by foreign policy, there was no mention of Brexit.
Mr Schulz, who was memorably described by one of the country’s top pollsters as “Merkel with a beard”, attempted to differentiate himself from his opponent by taking a hard line on Turkey, pledging that if elected he would end…