EXCLUSIVE / Martin Schulz has launched a discreet campaign to remain President of the European Parliament for a third consecutive term. One of his most fervent supporters is Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President.
Schulz has started to make his case among MEPs and other leading political figures in Parliament to be reelected by his peers for a third consecutive term in January 2017, various officials told EURACTIV.
Supporters of Schulz’s bid argued it would not make sense for him to leave office before concluding the full five-year mandate, as he has embarked on a personal crusade to raise the Parliament’s influence and visibility.
The German Social Democrat has turned the Strasbourg Assembly into a place of choice for national leaders to explain their views on the main challenges facing the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande took the floor last September, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron could attend the plenary once he presents his proposals to renegotiate the UK’s position in the EU.
The German politician is also seen as the only one capable of maintaining discipline inside the Socialist delegation, and thus maintain the ‘grand coalition’ between the Socialists and the centre-right European people’s Party (EPP), the officials added.
Crucially, Schulz’s bid to renew his mandate for another two-and-a-half years, is also supported by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, sources said.
The pair have forged close ties over the past months, European sources confirmed, saying Juncker is even one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the idea. The chief of the executive has found a key ally in Schulz, for getting his proposals passed in Parliament, officials said.
But despite Juncker’s backing, there is still reluctance at the EPP to relinquish the second half of the five-year mandate. Under a similar agreement in the previous legislature, Schulz had to share the five-year Presidency with his polish counterpart, Jerzy Buzek.
Conservatives are ready to put up a fight. EPP sources pointed out that Schulz signed an agreement with the center-right group to share the Parliament presidency, saying the deal must be respected.
“This is a rumour that Schulz is trying to spread, based on the idea that the Socialist leader [Gianni] Pittella is very nice but lacks authority,” said one senior MEP from the EPP group. Schulz’s objective, he explained, is to pose as the “sole guarantor of the socialist unity and the ‘grand coalition’ pact.”
“But this would be a challenge to our marriage contract with the Socialists,” the MEP said referring to the agreement struck at the beginning of the Parliament’s term to share the Presidency between the Socialists and the EPP.
In order to placate critics, Schulz has started to hold meetings with leading members of the EPP, including the head of the political group in Parliament, Manfred Weber.
The EPP has yet to select its candidate. Several names have been floated, including the Italian MEP Antonio Tajani and Mairead McGuinness from Ireland. Alain Lamassoure, who heads France’s centre-right delegation in Parliament, has also been mentioned as a potential candidate.
The EPP is expected to pick its candidate toward the end of 2016, and has advised potential contenders not to jump into the race too early.
Tajani’s name has circulated with insistance over the past months. However, the former Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, who is one of the founders of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, is far from enjoying unanimous support among fellow EPP members.
Recent revelations that he failed to act in the Volkswagen emissions scandal when he was Commissioner may have killed Tajani’s bid once and for all.
Meanwhile, Schulz is maneuvering to keep his options open. The Socialist heavyweight does not want to come back to the Parliament as a regular MEP. His preferred option would be to hold a position in the German government, while the Parliament chair would only come second, sources said. Schulz’s dream would be to lead Germany’s Social Democrats in the next national elections, to be held in the autumn of 2017.
But he is not alone in the race. Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD chief, said last week that “of course” he wants to be the candidate for the next election. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, and the labour minister, Andrea Nahles, also aspire to higher positions.
According to recent opinion polls, only 24% of Germans area ready to vote for the Social Democrats. However, it remains unclear what will happen in the months to come as the refugee crisis has shaken the German political landscape causing deep fracture within the ‘grand coalition’ parties.
A lot will depend on Chancellor Merkel. Will she push a fellow countryman from a rival party, or support her own political family, the EPP? With the refugee crisis, and the government’s popularity expected to remain a source of concern in Berlin for months to come, Schulz’s future may be Merkel’s least concern.