Some Social Democrats want their ex-leader to take another turn as a candidate – this time for the 2019 European elections. He has the Brussels experience, but would he be a good standard-bearer for Europe’s center-left?
Former party leader and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz had one of the most meteoric rises in recent German political history — and an equally steep and speedy fall.
When Schulz handed over leadership of the center-left SPD to Andrea Nahles earlier this year, it seemed to be a safe assumption that Schulz’s time in the political spotlight was over.
However, a suggestion last month from Berlin Mayor Michael Müller has set off a round of chatter that Schulz may yet have another turn as a candidate in front of him: by reprising his 2014 role as the Spitzenkandidat, or leading candidate, for the center-left in next May’s European elections.
Each parliamentary group chooses a Spitzenkandidat, who serves as the face of their Europe-wide campaign; the Spitzenkandidat of the group that wins the most votes becomes president of the European Commission.
“Martin Schulz is the European politician par excellence,” Berlin’s Müller told German magazine Der Spiegel. “He stands and burns for this topic — not to use that would be negligent.”
Return to Brussels?
Before leading the SPD, Schulz had already built up a profile in Brussels through his two decades in the European Parliament: he served as the body’s president from 2012 to 2017.
As a candidate and SPD leader in last year’s federal elections, Schulz frequently promoted greater European integration, calling for what he referred to as the “United States of Europe.”
It wasn’t just Müller who backed the idea of Schulz as the center-left’s leading candidate and would-be European Commission president, a position currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker. The SPD’s Seeheimer Circle, known as the more centrist and pragmatic wing of the party, also “wholeheartedly” endorsed the idea.
“Europe is his topic,” Johannes Kahrs, the group’s spokesman, told Der Spiegel. “Martin Schulz is known across Europe, esteemed, connected, and can and will advance Europe.”
A European profile
But could — and should — a Schulz candidacy next year really happen? The wisdom of such a prospect seems less clear. German political experts acknowledge that Schulz is by far the SPD politician with the biggest profile on the European political stage, but just because he’s well-known doesn’t mean he’d be the right choice for Europe’s center-left.
“Martin Schulz has obvious shortcomings, but also several advantages: he’s somebody who’s highly qualified, who knows everybody in Europe and everything about Europe, and feels at home in Brussels,” Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at the University of Kiel, told DW.
Still, Dirsus added, “there’s a difference between getting the job done, and getting the job [in the first place].”
Schulz’s track record on that front, at least, is less than ideal: after entering the 2017 elections as the SPD’s standard-bearer to great fanfare, with media lauding him and the so-called ‘Schulz effect,’ Schulz managed to squander the electoral opportunity and ultimately led his party to a historic low of 20.5 percent in September. The election loss and ensuing ‘grand coalition’ negotiations with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats helped throw the SPD into a post-election identity crisis.
Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst for the German polling firm Forsa, told DW that Schulz’s stock among the German electorate had already dropped even further after the election and coalition talks.
When Forsa pollsters asked German voters for their chancellor preference during the coalition talks, only 15 percent named Schulz; when they later asked about voters’ thoughts on who should be the next foreign minister, Schulz received an even lower share of support.
“All the polls indicated that he was through: his ratings were already bad before the election and they got even a little bit worse after the election,” Matuschek said. “I was a little bit surprised, personally, when the SPD came out with the idea maybe to nominate him as the frontrunner [in the European elections].”
Also difficult for Schulz, independent campaign consultant Julius van de Laar told DW, is that he is a familiar face at a time when many voters want to toss out the political establishment.
“These days campaigns are won on the promise of change,” he said. “It will be quite challenging to draw a sharp contrast between Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker and make a credible argument that a vote for Martin Schulz is a vote for change.”
A sign of the SPD’s challenges
The discussion about Schulz as a possible Spitzenkandidat, though, underscores the challenge the SPD is facing: as the party looks to rebuild, it faces a shortage of prospective candidates with any sort of national or international profile. In other words, if Schulz isn’t Germany’s center-left suggestion for the role, who else could be?
“I think Schulz is a bad choice, but there are no immediate good choices that come to mind,” Dirsus said. The SPD “can’t even find somebody effective and charismatic to lead them nationally – and that is of course a much higher priority.”
Parties and groups in the European Parliament are slated to choose their top candidates later this year. Others who have been mentioned for the center-left include EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans and Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.