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Merkel and Schulz spar over Turkey in TV election debate

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her centre-left rival, Martin Schulz, locked horns over how to deal with Turkey in their only televised debate Sunday, three weeks before the country's general election.

Mr Schulz, a former president of the European Union's legislative body, said he would end talks with Ankara about joining the bloc because of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian policies.

"A point has been reached where we need to end the economic relationship, the financial relationship, the customs union and the accession talks," Mr Schulz said during the 90-minute debate.

Mrs Merkel, who has previously expressed doubts about Turkey ever joining the EU, refused to commit to the same move, but sharply criticised Mr Erdogan's rule, saying that "Turkey is departing from all democratic practices at breakneck speed".

"Whether we slam the door shut or Turkey does that is something we'll have to see," she said, adding that any move would need to be co-ordinated with other European countries.

"I don't plan to break off diplomatic relations with Turkey because we have to outdo each other a little bit during the election campaign to see who is tougher," Mr Merkel said.

The issue was a rare moment of tension in what was otherwise a measured debate between Mrs Merkel and Mr Schulz. Both candidates have run lacklustre campaigns so far, prompting yawns from political commentators, with Germany's respected news weekly Der Spiegel depicting Mrs Merkel on its front page on Saturday asleep in a boxing ring, with a tiny Mr Schulz standing timidly behind her and the headline "Wake up!"

Much of the debate was taken up with the issue of migrants, with Mrs Merkel saying she stood by her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany in 2015 and insisted the country cannot isolate itself from the effects of wars and poverty elsewhere in the world.

Mr Schulz largely backed the move, saying only that it should have been better co-ordinated with other European countries.

The decision to open Germany's borders boosted the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which is expected to enter Parliament for the first time as a result of the September 24 vote.

In her pitch to voters, Mrs Merkel touted her 12 years of experience as the leader of Europe's biggest economy, citing Germany's low unemployment rate and pledging not to raise the pension age to 70.

Mrs Merkel also stressed that she would stick to her policy of choosing international co-operation over confrontation, including with US President Donald Trump.

Telephone polls following Sunday's debate put Mrs Merkel ahead of Mr Schulz, though in Germany the chancellor is elected by parliament.

Mr Schulz's Social Democratic Party has been trailing Mrs Merkel's centre-right Union bloc in all recent opinion surveys.

During the debate, both candidates refused to rule out continuing their current grand coalition at the national level after the election.

AP

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