Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, has become the candidate designate of the Party of European Socialists for the Commission Presidency. You didn't have to work for the NSA to know that Schulz wanted to run - it's been widely known for over a year that he has been the front runner in the centre-left camp - but the fact that his candidacy has pretty much been confirmed today was a surprise.
It certainly surprised me that the PES announced their candidate today. A few weeks ago I'd written about the PES primary process, so I thought that the nominees would be announced today, with a primary campaign being waged until the end of January. It turns out that out of all the names touted for the role - Helle Thorning Schmidt, Pascal Lamy, Margot Wallstroem, etc. - only one was nominated. So, with 19 member parties of the PES supporting him (out of 32), Martin Schulz has been elected PES candidate unopposed.
Bad for the PES, bad for Schulz
I'm sure Schulz is glad to have it in the bag, but the lack of a proper primary is a bad result for both Schulz and the PES. The primary race was going to be a way of connecting voters (or at least party members) with the European elections, which would boost the profile of the nominees and eventual candidate, make the elections more European (both within the national parties and in the media for the elections) and help energise and inform the grassroots for the election campaign. These factors would have supported and re-enforced each other. However, without a proper campaign, member parties are not so attached to their candidate and Schulz has lost out on the publicity that he will need (as a candidate who was never a prime minister and so not very well known outside the Brussels bubble). The PES have also heavily diluted out on their chance to boast about how democratic they are in comparison to the European People's Party's more intergovernmental horse-trading approach.
It is probably a sign of Schulz's success in his campaign for the nomination that he was the only candidate in the end. He will now spend the primary time touring member parties to talk to them and raise his profile. But it is a loss not to have a contest.
The good news is that the PES have a candidate! In a way this is a bit ridiculous to have something so basic as running a candidate to be a plus for a political party, but the PES failed to run one last year. Having a candidate will be a plus if placed within the campaign properly. Schulz is right to want a left-right debate in the elections, and it's the PES's best chance to win more seats. Especially within the Eurozone, the PES need to present themselves as the political group with policy alternatives, and a working alliance (demonstrated by having candidates for executive office) that can change things. The centre-left have done very poorly in polls nationally, and with the prospect of a strong Eurosceptic showing, simply waiting for voters to come to them as the party of opposition in most Member States will not work. (Whether Schulz is the best placed for this I'll leave til tomorrow).
The Merkel Factor
With Merkel re-elected, an PES win would complicate things. Schulz, as a German, would be taking the German slot in the Commission and despite the prize position, Merkel would probably be uncomfortable with loosing the power to pick a more CDU/EPP friendly person for the post. In fact, she has already spoken out against the winning Europarty candidate automatically becoming the Commission president. At the same time, the issue of Germany's Commissioner job has not come up in coalition talks between the CDU/CSU and Schulz's SPD (and Schulz has been involved in these talks). Having a CDU-SPD government should make the idea more realistic at the same time.