Martin Schulz as Head of the S&D

Benjamin Zeeb profiles the second of two major contenders for the first Parliament-endorsed Presidency of the European Commission.

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With the selection of Martin Schulz as the front-runner in this year’s EU Parliamentary elections, the S&D decided to go with one of the Parliament’s most prolific politicians. More precisely Schulz, like his main opponent, the EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker, belongs to that exclusive club of EU politicians of whom a decent number of Europeans might actually be able to recognize in a picture. That might not sound like much, but is indeed a great improvement over such previous contests.

Other than Juncker, who served as Minister of Finance and later premier of his home country, Schulz is perhaps the first politician whose career was truly made within an EU institution. After having served as Mayor of Würselen, a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia, an office to which he was elected at the tender age of 31 in 1987, he went on to become an MEP in 1994. Schulz quickly rose within the Parliament and became the German SPD’s leader in 2000, and headed the S&D parliamentary group from 2004. In 2012, he was elected the body’s president.

As such, he has been a staunch defender of the Parliament’s rights vis a vis the Commission and Europe’s heads of state who at times regard the Parliament’s rising influence with a degree of sceptical anxiety. It was mainly Schulz and his team who succeed in really taking advantage of the new rules in place since the Treaty of Lisbon, allowing Europe’s parliamentary factions to select candidates for the post of Commission President. While there is no legal certainty that the parliament’s candidate will eventually accede to the post, the way that Schulz and Juncker were presented to the public in this year’s campaign will make it very difficult for the European Council to nominate an alternative candidate lest they wish to propel the EU’s oft cited democratic deficit once again to the centre of public attention. Even a defeat of Schulz the Commission candidate could thus lead to a victory of Schulz the President of the Parliament.

In this tight race, it is mainly his home country that might dim Schulz’ own prospects to become Commission President. While he is formally running against Juncker, German Christian Democrats are waging a campaign that rests firmly on Angela Merkel’s popularity. It will be difficult to achieve a strong showing in Germany with the SPD having constantly undershot pollster’s expectations in previous European races. Meanwhile, in other member-states, he might be perceived as the “German candidate”, the representative of the nation that already holds substantial sway over the Union and that recently pushed through economic policy in the eurozone that has brought many countries to the brink of social collapse.

For the Schulz campaign, the unique challenge is on one hand to convince German voters, who make up a large part of the electorate, that he is actually running against Juncker, a candidate that despite his relative popularity in Germany is far more flawed than the ever-popular Merkel. Both Juncker’s Luxembourgian origin, which many associate with chronic tax evasion, and his long-time attachment to the EU, an institution faulted by many for its legislative overreach or it’s slow-speed development, provide openings to attack an otherwise formidable opponent. On the other hand, Schulz needs to play down his German roots when campaigning for votes in Europe’s southern member-states, playing up his reserved position on the politics of austerity and his endorsement of euro bonds as a possible solution to the economic crisis.

Whether or not Schulz can pull this off in a race, a race that pollsters at the moment see as too close to call, remains to be seen and is not a primary concern of the PDU. In that other race however, the struggle to invest the office of Commission President with real democratic legitimacy, and to reduce the European Council’s appointment to a mere formality, we wish him and the entire European Parliament bonne chance.

Image: ‘Martin Schulz in Esterwegen’ courtesy of Matthias Groote via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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