Who is Martin Schulz and does he have the chance to end the 12 year rule of Angela Merkel?

Across German politics this year, one motto has rung out and resonated more than perhaps any other: ‘Zeit für Martin!’ – ‘Time for Martin!’ It may be somewhat surprising that the focus of this attention, this excitement, is in fact a 61 year-old balding, white, middle-aged, former bookshop owner from the Aachen area. Even better, or worse in certain eyes, Schulz, between 1994-2017 was an MEP and during this time was also the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats for 8 years from 2004-2012 and was the President of the European Union itself from 2012 until his resignation this January to stand as the SPD’s candidate for Bundeskanzler. As an arch-Eurocrat, Schulz seems intrinsically unelectable, especially in a Germany which is seeing a blooming of Eurosceptism and questionable patriotism through the maligned Alternativ für Deutschland – and yet Schulz is set as not only a contender, but a serious and genuine challenger to Merkel, which makes the story and background of his success even more interesting.

At the beginning of 2017, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands appeared to be in a bad way. In January the SPD was polling, for the upcoming Bundestag or National Parliamentary vote in September, at around 22%, considerably less than the CDU/CSU, the Conservative Christian party of Kanzlerin Merkel at 35%. The then leader of the SPD and Vizekanzler Sigmar Gabriel was seen as an unpopular choice to lead the party in the election – not only had, under his watchful eye, the SPD fallen, at times​ to 19% in the polls, but also his close cooperation with the CDU  in the grand coalition government was indicative of a politician who was so close to the Establishment that he couldn’t offer anything different.

Already however, before Sigmar had even stepped aside for Schulz, Martin was seen as a contender for the Bundeskanzleramt, chiefly because he offered one of the only viable choices for an alternative to Merkel that has been presented in her unquestionable dominance of German politics over the last 12 years. As a politician since 1984, when he was elected onto the Würselen Stadtrat or Town Council, Schulz has demonstrated a natural ability to conduct himself in the circles of politics during which he has managed to craft for himself the image of a straight-talking and yet cheerful and friendly man of the people. Two notable examples which brought Schulz support and fame in Germany are when in 2003 the infamous Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi eluded to Martin Schulz being a concentration camp guard which sparked a diplomatic row between the two nations’ Governments and also when in 2010 British UKIP MEP for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire Godfrey Bloom, during a debate on the Euro crisis in Ireland yelled “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” at Schulz and accused him of being an “undemocratic fascist.” Both of these events can be said to have helped Schulz in cementing his image as a supporter of a unified EU, although they certainly didn’t help Bloom who was expelled from the plenary chamber for his remarks.

Martin Schulz opening the EU Plenary in October 2013 – although a majority of Germans are unhappy with the direction of the EU, the population still supports membership and a hardline with the Brexit negotiations (Credit: European Parliament under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The EU links that Martin Schulz carries could be thought of by some as chains, taking the surge of the AfD into account, but in actual fact the commitment which Schulz has demonstrated to the European project is more useful and potent now, more than ever. Various surveys and polls have shown that European Union membership support is still high in Germany – in November 2016 research by the Bertelsmann Foundation on support for the EU across key member states showed that German support for the bloc had increased from March to August by 8%, from 61-69%. Another poll by the Körper-Stiftung in October 2016 found that although 62% of Germans believed that the EU is heading in the wrong direction, 58% of the populous wanted a no-comprise deal for the Brexit negotiations, seen from the UK at least, as being a watershed which, if generous enough for the UK, could trigger other sceptical states to leave the bloc. Support for a hard-Brexit isn’t just found in the pro-EU side, every major party, apart from the AfD has majority support for a punitive deal for Britain, and even the Eurosceptic AfD members support it to 44%. Luckily for the German public (and perhaps somewhat unluckily for the British) Schulz has promised “the hardest Brexit” saying that “With me there will be no Europe bashing.”

Add to this heady mix of staunch EU support, years of experience and a sympathetic public, made increasing supportive when considering Schulz’s former past as an alcoholic and a promising footballer struck down by injury, Schulz’s position already seems strong – without even taking into account the weaknesses of Merkel. Already having been Chancellor for over a decade, the strain of longevity and high-power politics is beginning to show. Germany’s refugee policy, personally spearheaded by her despite anger from the public and protest within her own party has proven to be divisive – 60% of the German people want a cap on refugee intake, a policy which Merkel has flatly refused on several occasions. The baggage of such long governance may come to bite for Merkel whereas Schulz, despite being well known in German politics has no such national political background and too has the benefit of being able to criticise the CDU without the hypocrisy of having served with them in Government.

As a result of these advantages, Schulz has turned the thumbscrews on the CDU, so to speak. The personal lead which Merkel enjoyed over Gabriel has been completely wiped – in February polls showed that Schulz was the preferred candidate over Merkel, 50-34% whilst the SPD jumped an astonishing 8 points, attributable to the ‘Schulz Effekt’. In March, whilst Merkel’s approval ratings had risen to 60% and Schulz remained close at 52% and both were at 44% support for Bundeskanzler(in), the SPD came within 1% behind the CDU to reach their highest standing in 5 years. As Germany does not elect the Kanzler directly, as per the US model, the party standing could mean, if it continues, that we could soon see Kanzler Schulz leading a social-democratic government for Germany. And as a staunch social-democrat, I have just one thing to say: “Ich habe Zeit für Martin!”

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little foray into German politics. Germany is incredibly interesting for me, so don’t be surprised if Deutschland crops up again in future posts!

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Danke schön!