The decision of European Parliament President Martin Schulz to return to domestic politics, where he is expected to run for chancellor in Germany’s October 2017 election, raises questions about the political future of his Commission counterpart, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Schulz made his decision public to the Brussels press today (24 November), after he announced it to selected German media yesterday. He didn’t take any questions.
EURACTIV has learned that even leading MEPs from his Socialist and Democrats group were not aware of his plans. They had assumed that Schulz would stay on for an exceptional third two-and-half year term, after his present stint expires at the end of January.
Juncker was comfortable with Schulz as Parliament president, because the Socialists, who came second at the 2014 European election, needed to obtain one of the three top jobs at EU level. Juncker, whose EPP party won the election, got the Commission job, and Donald Tusk, the EPP-affiliated former Polish PM, took the presidency of the European Council.
Moreover, Juncker and Schulz understood each other well and took many decisions bilaterally, instead of using the format of the “Conference of Presidents”, attended also by leaders of other political groups.
Schulz has reportedly made sure that German commissioner Günther Oettinger, who needs to have his new budget portfolio confirmed, will bypass the hearing process in Parliament. Last month the CDU politicianr got embroiled in scandals, prompting calls from many MEPs that he should resign.
The job of Parliament president has been held on a rotating basis between the EPP and the socialists in a bilateral deal excluding other forces since 2007 . The leader of the liberal ALDE group has frequently slammed this power play.
It is highly unlikely that the Socialists could get the job of Parliament president from January, with several EPP candidates waiting on the sidelines.
“Kicking out Juncker would be the first thing to do if someone wanted to make the EU a better place,” a well-informed institutional source told EURACTIV, asking not to be named.
According to the source, Merkel, whose opinion of Juncker’s performance has significantly deteriorated, would like to see him replaced, giving the chance for a ‘reset’ of the EU.
“The EU needs a new start and Schulz’s departure is very good news,” the source said.
Juncker was already under pressure to resign over the Brexit vote, and has been criticised by the Visegrád countries for his handling of the refugee crisis.
An obvious replacement for Juncker would be First Vice-President Frans Timmermans. The Dutchman is a socialist, which comes in handy, but not even the S&D group wants him to take over, EURACTIV was told.
Gianni Pittella, leader of the S&D group in the European Parliament, stated that following the announcement of the departure of Schulz “the issue of political balance between the EU institutions remains wide open”.
“For us, it is clear that Martin’s departure will change in a dramatic way the political dynamics of the European institution. The political question remains wide open. As Socialists and Democrats, we insist on the principle of political balance which needs to be maintained and respected”, he said.
The leader of the EPP group Manfred Weber called for “political stability” until the 2019 European elections.
“For now it is crucial to make sure this stability is safeguarded. We also want to make sure that the role of radical and extremist MEPs is limited and that they cannot influence major EU decisions. This is what is needed over the coming years”, Weber stated.