At the helm of the centre-left SPD, the veteran Brussels politician looks to give Angela Merkel her toughest election battle yet.
2016 was a year in European politics that was defined by the upending of the traditional political order and the leaders who represented it. Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom and Italy were made to resign after losing referenda they had instituted, while French President François Hollande made the unprecedented decision to not pursue re-election. The mood of uncertainty and instability across the continent has only been made worse by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, described by European Council head Donald Tusk as a ‘threat’ to Europe in a recent letter.
Out of this turbulent climate, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as an icon of the traditional liberal world order; her commitment to free trade, human rights, and open refugee policy has led to her being lauded by the Washington Post as the ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘the liberal west’s last defender’ by the New York Times. However, her centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) has begun to lag in the polls, as Merkel faces her toughest election fight since winning the Chancellorship in 2005.
Unlike the situation many European countries, Merkel’s leadership is not being challenged from the right; instead, she faces a traditional social democratic left re-invigorated under new leadership. Martin Schulz, 61, combines a long record of political experience with an outsider reputation that allows him to campaign on a mood of change that many Germans are hoping for after twelve years of CDU governance.
Schulz’s political career in Germany is a short one. He never served in a previous SPD government, or even held a seat in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. In 1987 Schulz, then only 31, was elected mayor of Würsulen, a small city near the Belgian border. He would soon be over that border entirely, as in 1994 he was elected as a German representative to the European Parliament. An ardent pro-European, Schulz continued to climb the hierarchy of the centre-left S&D political alliance, before being elected President of the European Parliament, one of the Union’s three main leadership positions, in 2012. He retired as an MEP in January 2017 to return to Germany, where he is now the Social Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor in the year’s general election.
The fact that Schulz has only just re-entered German domestic politics is far from a de-merit; it in fact represents the best path forward for the SPD. The centre-left party, currently the second largest in the Bundestag, has been junior partner to the CDU in a ‘grand coalition’ arrangement for the past three years, making a campaign based on genuine change in Germany significantly difficult. In the weeks before Schulz’s retirement from Brussels, when many assumed the SPD would field current Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the party was stuck at a record low 20% in the polls. The SPD now runs neck and neck with the CDU, even pulling ahead in some surveys, and would likely form a government with the support of the Green Party, or even a reversal of the current grand coalition arrangement. It is a situation with which Schulz has experience; it is how he managed to attain majority support in the European Parliament.
A Schulz Chancellorship would be a promising sign to Europe after a series of populist victories. It would demonstrate that, in the largest EU member, transitions in power can take place between the traditional centre-right and centre-left, rather than from the centre to the extremes. It would also demonstrate continued support for pro-European politicians on the continent. Schulz, campaigning strongly on a change message, may even steal votes from the populist and anti-establishment Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has struggled to reach beyond 15% in the polls and is beginning to see a drop in support.
Of course, this is not to discount the potential for Merkel to re-build support for her government before election day this September. In uncertain times, stability and security are important issues for German voters, both of which carry strong associations with Merkel’s decade-long tenure. What is nearly assured, however, is that Schulz’s candidacy will re-energise the German centre-left after three years in an unpalatable junior partner position.
– Taran Molloy, Capital HardTalk.