Under Martin Schulz, the Parliament has become the ’29th member state’

Martin Schulz [SPÖ/Flickr]

The president of the European Parliament will not say whether he plans to stay in his position in 2017. The German Chancellor may prefer to keep him in Brussels, at arm’s length. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

European affairs sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to domestic German politics. Martin Schulz, the 61-year-old centre left politician from the Rhineland has done more for the visibility of the European Parliament than any of the institution’s previous presidents, who passed largely unnoticed.

His attacks on “savage populism” have made the headlines in the German and Belgian press, and ruffled the feathers of personalities like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. In Germany, Schulz is even more visible in the national political debate than almost any of the German SPD (Social Democratic Party) leaders, and he is a more vocal supporter of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy than any of his party comrades in Berlin.

“He has given a real face to the institution. And he is popular in Germany,” said Rebecca Harms, a German MEP and co-chair of the Parliament’s Greens/EFA group.

In Brussels and Strasbourg, Schulz presides over a grand coalition between his own centre left Socialists and Democrats (S&D group) and the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP group). Like his predecessor Jerzy Buzek, the former Polish prime minister, Schulz had agreed to hand over the presidency mid-mandate to a successor from the other side of the coalition.

The “natural” candidate from the right would be Antonio Tajani, a former Commission Vice-President and the current first vice-president of the Parliament, who rose to prominence in Brussels as a faithful ally of Silvio Berlusconi.

“Playing it by ear”

But the possibility of Schulz holding onto his position until 2019 is increasingly being discussed, in spite of the convention of alternating leadership. If this were to happen, he would be the first Parliament president to hold the position for seven years (having taken over mid-mandate in 2012).

“It is a possibility,” said French Socialist MEP Pervenche Berès (S&D group). He knows the job. He supports Jean-Claude Juncker, the Christian democrat Commission President. He is pro-European. And he enables agreements, which are not always to everybody’s liking.

“We play everything by ear. This is not how a grand coalition usually works, with a precise contract and things laid out very clearly,” said Sylvie Goulard, a French Liberal MEP.

Schulz attends European Council summits, despite the fact he has no mandate to do so, where the EU’s 28 heads of state and government make crucial decisions on subjects like the United Kingdom’s Brexit arrangement and the Turkish migration deal. But some MEPs find this a little hard to swallow.

“The Parliament is treated like the 29th EU member state; this seriously undermines the separation of powers,” Goulard said.

A second Germany

After the Volkswagen scandal, the Parliament president pushed for the creation of a committee of inquiry on the European legislation concerning toxic emissions from cars. He had opposed similar measures in the wake of the LuxLeaks scandal, apparently so as not to embarrass Juncker, the former Luxembourgish prime minister.

But the VW scandal also presented him with a golden opportunity to put the boot into his possible successor Tajani, who was in charge of industry at the Commission during the period when the executive is accused of bowing to the automobile lobby.

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We cannot know for sure if he really does intend to hold onto the presidency, in spite of his 2015 agreement with the EPP.

“There is nothing new under the sun. Some people are trying to kill the subject and make sure there is no open debate on it,” a member of Schulz’s cabinet told La Tribune, giving the impression that he was not opposed to running for another mandate.

Even in the EPP, the issue is presented as “complicated”. Nobody knows if the Parliament’s right will put forward a candidate or not, or who it might be; Tajani has no lack of opponents.

One thing is certain: only Merkel has the power to corral the required number of EPP members into supporting Schulz’s re-election bid. And she would probably prefer to see him stay in Brussels.

For Schulz, deciding to respect his commitment to hand over the Parliament presidency to the EPP and not stand for another mandate may be the greatest act of defiance he could show the Chancellor.

His current mandate as president of the European Parliament ends in January 2017, just days before the North Rhine-Westphalia SDP announces its candidates for the federal elections in autumn 2017. Some even see him as a potential contender for Merkel’s job. But this has yet to be confirmed.

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