Martin Schulz is known in Germany mainly as a European politician and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. But later this year they will face off in the country’s leadership race. EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.
Martin Schulz’s credentials as a domestic politician are still a largely unknown quantity. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) wants to defend democracy and focus more on the everyday worries of the public, he said yesterday (25 January) during his first appearance as the party’s candidate for the chancellorship.
The former European Parliament president will go into more details on Sunday (29 January) at the SPD headquarters, when he is expected to outline his vision for the September election.
In Brussels, Schulz built up a reputation as a tenacious advocate of the European idea. His erstwhile rival for the SPD nomination, Sigmar Gabriel, said that Schulz is “a German European and a European German”, following the announcement of the party’s decision.
But what does the 61-year-old, who took over the leadership of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and reigned as European Parliament president since 2012, actually stand for and what did he achieve during his time in the Belgian capital?
Budget dispute and Commission dreams
There is a certain irony that Schulz sought a third term as Parliament president before his decision to move into German politics was made, as time and time again during his Brussels stint he accused his native country of blocking the ongoing development of the EU.
Indeed, Schulz frequently complained that EU heads of state and government conducted themselves in their summits in a similar fashion to the much-criticised Congress of Vienna of 1814/1815.
The same energy he used to denounce the selfishness of the member states was also used in defence of the Brussels institutions, particularly the Parliament and the European Commission.
In 2013, he led the Parliament in a calculated confrontation against the member states over the terms of the EU’s 2014-2020 budget.
Ultimately, the Parliament agreed to a compromise in late 2013, but even Schulz’s efforts could not stop the budget falling victim to European austerity policy, as it became the first EU budget to decrease in size in comparison with its predecessor.
The next year, Schulz threw his hat into the ring for leadership of the Commission. The SPD man backed out of the race following the 2014 European elections, after verbal spats with his rival for the job at the time, current Commission President and close friend Jean-Claude Juncker.
In the end, it was the European Parliament and its representatives that had the last laugh, as it was they that ultimately decided who should be the next executive head. To what extent Schulz exercised influence over the choosing of Juncker as Commission president is still an open question.
Schulz: Blinkers off
Although Schulz consistently supported strengthening the European institutions during his time in Brussels, he cannot be accused of being a blinkered pro-Europe advocate.
The former mayor of the town of Würselen has never shied away from highlighting shortcomings in the EU machine. In a June interview with Der Tagesspiegel, he called into question whether it was indeed necessary for there to be 28 Commissioners.
Currently, each member state is represented in the EU executive division of portfolios. But Schulz pointed out that it is not practical as there are more Commissioners than fields of activity.
Commitment to European values
Schulz’s commitment to European values is clear though and his Brussels experience points to a man that truly believes in the Union.
His run-in with then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2003, where Schulz criticised his domestic policy and was in return branded as the perfect candidate for a part in a World War II film as a concentration camp commander, is now the stuff of Brussels legend.
As Parliament president, his defence of the rule of law has also been admirable, demonstrated by his putting on ice of an MEP vote on visa liberalisation for Turkey in the wake of curbs on freedom of speech.
Merkel vs Schulz: Round 2
During the euro crisis, he also made another mark when he clashed with Angela Merkel about the issuing of eurobonds, a controversial debt mutualisation project that the chancellor fervently opposed.
It by no means defined their relationship though and Schulz last year was full of praise for the German chancellor and her country’s efforts during the refugee crisis.
He is also in agreement with Merkel about the need for reform of the Dublin System but changes to the policy look in doubt, as the Eastern European countries, as well as favourite for the French presidency race, François Fillon, are opposed to reform.
Schulz has made it over the first obstacle and secured his party’s nomination. Most observers say he has little to no chance of actually defeating Merkel in the election but the way in which he campaigns may influence greatly what position he could potentially fill in the next government.
Indeed, if a direct vote were to decide the winner, then Schulz would secure the same amount of support as Merkel, as poll released yesterday (25 January) revealed. Both are polling at 41% currently.