The president of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, is returning to German politics. He hasn't openly said what post he's angling for, but he's an asset for the SPD in an election year, says Rupert Wiederwald.
Martin Schulz read his announcement in Brussels in three languages: German, English and French. Little things like this demonstrate that, for Social Democrats, Europe was and remains very dear to their hearts.
Schulz's decision to leave now also has to do with the fact that he cannot continue in office as president of the European Parliament. According to an agreement to which all parliamentary parties have subscribed, a representative of the conservative EVP must take over the position in 2017. So Schulz is now keen to exert his influence from Berlin – and not just as an ordinary member of parliament. For someone like him, there are two positions that suggest themselves: the office of foreign minister, or the SPD's chancellor candidate in next year's election.
Two possible SPD chancellor candidates
So far, Martin Schulz has not commented on which of the two he's aiming for, or whether he's aiming for both at once. There's little or nothing to be heard from the SPD on the subject, either. But that's no bad thing – on the contrary. The SPD doesn't want to decide on its chancellor candidate until January. Until then, it's presenting itself as a party with at least two political heavyweights to offer: Martin Schulz on the one hand; and on the other, of course, the party's current leader and Germany's incumbent vice chancellor and economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel.
In past elections, the so-called "K question" – or "chancellor issue" – was decided very precipitously, always accompanied by internal party squabbles. This resulted in campaigns that went wrong and ended in crushing losses to Angela Merkel.
This is not a mistake they want to repeat. Instead, the SPD plans to maintain the tension – and profit from it. This has worked pretty well so far, not least because party leader Gabriel and Schulz get on well and clearly have a relationship of trust.
The two men seem to have an agreement that if Gabriel wants to run there will be no resistance to this. Should he, however, come to the decision that his friend Schulz would be the better candidate, the latter would be given the field.
Schulz is up to both election campaigning and the job of foreign minister
Schulz has already proved, in the European elections of 2014, that he's good at campaigning. As the leading candidate Europe-wide, he may not have managed to gain a majority for the Socialists in the European Parliament, but nobody expected him to. He did, however, boost the national result for the SPD in Germany by an impressive six percentage points to 27.6 percent. Were the Social Democrats to achieve a result like this in a federal election, it would be a real success.
From the SPD's point of view, Schulz would also be a good choice for foreign minister. He's experienced in the diplomatic arena, has excellent contacts, and is also accepted outside his own ranks. He's made a name for himself as someone who speaks frankly. That would certainly make an agreeable change from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is more careful and deliberate. It would also be a counterpoint to Chancellor Merkel's line, which focuses more on quiet tones and working behind the scenes. Consequently, Martin Schulz would also be able to raise the SPD's profile if he were foreign minister – which would also make him a good election campaigner for Gabriel as a chancellor candidate.
Either way, Schulz's decision can only be advantageous for the SPD. The only proviso is that Schulz continues to maintain party discipline and doesn't publicly oppose Gabriel by calling for a decision.
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