Thursday, 7 November 2013

Martin Schulz: Political, Left-wing and Federalist

Yesterday Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, was announced to be the Party of European Socialists' candidate for the Commission Presidency.

So who is Martin Schulz? A former binder and book-shop owner, Schulz's only experience in political office outside of the European Parliament was at the local level as a councillor and then mayor of Wuerselen in Germany. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1994, was head of the PES/S&D group between 2004-2012 and has been president of the Parliament since 2012.

This experience is both a weakness and a strength. The current trend for Commission presidents is for them to be selected from the ranks of former prime ministers, and it's easy to see why. Name recognition, executive and diplomatic experience and (for members of the European Council) an understanding of national leaders. While Schulz doesn't have this, he clearly knows the EU institutions inside out and currently leads one. Speaking German, French and English and having lead a multi-national political group in the Parliament for 8 years, he should have a good grasp of EU political issues, how the institutions work (and how to work them) and how to build coalitions at the European level. Compared to a former prime minister who is offered the job, Schulz clearly sees the Commission presidency as the top job in his career and will probably be more politically ambitious in the role.

As a more openly political Commission president, a Commission lead by him would probably be more combative. Schulz sees wants the election to be a battle of ideas. As president of the European Parliament for almost 2 years, he hasn't actually voted on many of the most recent and controversial policies (as it's not the role of the president), but he has been a vocal president (no doubt with an eye on the upcoming campaign). In the last few months he's called for immigration reform (and wants Germany to take more refugees), supported pausing the trade talks with the US over the spying affair, supports a smaller Commission, sees the balance between large and small Member Sates shifting too much towards the larger ones, and is anti-austerity and wants Eurozone reforms (including a Currency Commissioner who chairs the Eurogroup). 

It's an open question how far he can take this combativeness from the Commission - the Commission still needs Council and Parliament approval to pass legislation. However, having an outspoken President could be a positive for small member states who want the Commission to do more to counterbalance the big countries, provided that they feel they can hang on to their Commissioners. Those who want an active Commission or to change the economic direction of Europe could see him as the man to pin their political hopes on, but Schulz will need to build broad support across Europe to get the votes he needs, and it might not be the biggest electorate in the world. Though with Eurosceptic parties established as the protest vote and rising in popularity, the PES probably can no longer simply rely on anti-incumbency sentiment to boost its vote. A more coherent anti-austerity vision may actually be the better than national parties simply going their own way. Politically and rhetorically, Schulz is to the left of several of the PES's member parties, though his main Eurozone and anti-austerity ideas are not too far outside the mainstream of the pro-integration centre-left.

How much Schulz's opinions will make it into the PES election manifesto remains to be seen, but Schulz has used the EP presidency to set out his leadership style: political, left-wing and federalist on the Eurozone and not afraid to annoy the bigger Member States. Whatever your political opinion, you can't accuse him of being another Barroso. Obviously this makes him an unlikely choice as the European Council's pick for the Commission, which makes electoral success all the more important for Schulz. He not only needs the PES/S&D to emerge as the winners of the election, but he has to be a visible and successful part of the campaign so that he can't be sidelined by the European Council. As I said yesterday, the lack of an open primary contest makes this more difficult.

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