News

4 March 2017

Just when all eyes are on Washington, up springs a challenger to Merkel in Berlin.

As if to prove that no one in politics is safe, Germany’s SPD (Social Democrat Party) has chosen Martin Schulz to take on the once unassailable chancellor.

A couple of years ago the German political scene seemed pretty stable. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, was riding high in the polls, her social democratic coalition partner, the SPD, was weak, and although a right-wing party, the AfD, had had some election successes, Merkel’s position seemed unassailable.

2015 saw the refugee crisis, with more than 1 million new arrivals registered, and Merkel has since faced – and largely seen off – internal challenges, her position reinforced by the absence of obvious rivals. Commentators and pollsters have been confidently anticipating that the German general election in September will see Merkel re-elected, and most probably renew her coalition with the SPD (though with both sides losing some ground to other parties, principally the AfD).

That projected stability held until yesterday, 24 January 2017, which may have been a rather momentous day for the future of Europe – and not only because the UK’s supreme court issued its ruling on parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit.

While the world was fixated on that event, and on Donald Trump’s first week in office, the SPD stunned the German political scene by announcing that Martin Schulz, who was until last week the president of the European parliament, would be its candidate against Merkel in the 2017 elections, and would also take over as SPD leader. The incumbent leader, Sigmar Gabriel, will resign from that post, and take over as German foreign minister (a role for which Schulz had been hotly tipped).

Gabriel’s decision to fall on his sword brings important consequences for the SPD, Germany, and Europe. An SPD defeat at the 2017 election, while still likely, no longer seems the certainty it did last month (when the SPD trailed Merkel’s CDU/CSU by 15% in the polls). Schulz’s personal approval ratings are significantly better than Gabriel’s, and indeed in January overtook Merkel’s (up 35% for Schulz, +14% for Merkel, -7% for Gabriel).

Martin Schulz is a fascinating, enigmatic character. His early years were tough: in small-town western Germany, his performance at school stopped him taking A-levels, he trained as a bookseller rather than going to university, and he experienced alcoholism in his 20s, abstaining from drink ever since. Three decades later, he has become one of the most influential politicians on the European stage, even gaining kudos in 2003 when he heckled Silvio Berlusconi at the European parliament – Berlusconi then compared him to a concentration camp commander, prompting a brief diplomatic crisis in the EU.

Schulz has forged a close alliance with Christian Democrats in Europe, become the undisputed figurehead of the Social Democratic party family, and developed a reputation as a formidable political operator (helped by his fluent command of five European languages).

The mood of the German general election campaign now seems likely to change. Under Gabriel, the SPD would have been closely associated with two terms in government as Merkel’s junior coalition partner, from 2005 to 2009, and then from 2013 onwards. During this time, the SPD has been able to achieve some of its longstanding policy goals (notably the introduction of a national minimum wage), but has found Merkel in firm occupation of the centre ground of German politics, leaving its own ministers trailing. At a stroke, with Schulz’s candidacy, the SPD appears a more exciting prospect, no longer so closely associated with workmanlike support for Merkel’s government and no longer bound by cabinet responsibility and discipline. German voters’ party preferences tend to shift only slowly, and the SPD still has a mountain to climb. But now the campaign will be far more vigorous, and the SPD’s challenge more plausible. The party has struggled to lay a glove on Merkel, but that may just change.

Commentators and party insiders were astonished by Schulz’s move: it had been widely reported that he had given up any hope of standing for the chancellorship, while Gabriel has a reputation as a ruthless party operator who has never been known to willingly stand aside. As news filtered through, Merkel was reported to have been vigorously tapping her mobile at a meeting of her parliamentary party, while the unfortunate Frank-Walter Steinmeier (the current foreign minister and one-time SPD chancellor candidate, who is soon to be appointed to the ceremonial position of federal president), a guest speaker at the meeting, found interest in his contribution rapidly waning.

For Merkel, the headache is not just about her immediate election prospects. Even if she wins in September, putting together a grand coalition with Schulz as her deputy looks a trickier prospect than had Gabriel been at the helm of the SPD. A grand coalition cannot be discounted (after all, Schulz was a successful steward of agreements with the centre right in the European parliament), but there is an outside chance the SPD under Schulz may try to assemble a leftwing coalition (with the Green and Left parties) should the numbers add up, or at least try to extract a price traditionalists in Merkel’s party will be reluctant to pay.

For Europe, the implications are also profound, if perhaps contradictory. In recent years Merkel has appeared to keep a tight grip on European policy herself, and Steinmeier was a fairly low-key foreign minister. Schulz – who after the Brexit vote urged the UK to take its leave of the EU quickly, and who is an avowed federalist and supporter of European integration – would have been a more assertive occupant of the post. Although Gabriel warned after the Brexit vote against allowing the UK to “cherry-pick” and that it could be an “invitation to all national egotists to try the same”, he enters the post in a weaker position, having been forced to concede he lacks the public and party support to run for chancellor. In balancing the merits of pragmatism towards the UK against any threat to the remainder of the EU’s integrity, Gabriel does not have Schulz’s 23 years of service to the European federalist project weighing on his mind.

But Merkel’s pragmatism and Gabriel’s weakness may only last until the September elections. The prospect of Schulz calling the shots for Germany, and perhaps Europe, in the Brexit negotiations is not one that will be welcome in London, and may well encourage London’s negotiators to get moving.

Article by Ed Turner, Aston University, Birmingham, based in the Aston Centre for Europe

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