Schulz Heads to Berlin The Man Who Could Shake Up German Politics
European Parliament President Martin Schulz announced this week that he is moving to Berlin to assume a role on the national political stage. Many believe he would make a strong contender for chancellor for the center-left Social Democrats. But one man stands in his way -- a friend.
As Martin Schulz stepped up to the microphone to announce his departure from Brussels on Thursday, he looked strong and determined. Inside, though, as quickly became apparent, melancholy was the dominant emotion. He seemed short of breath as he spoke, as though taking his leave was a strenuous undertaking. Then, he took a deep breath and said: "It was not an easy decision."
Though there are many sentences uttered in the world of politics that are staged or filled with ulterior motives, this one smacks of honesty. As corny as it may sound, Schulz's devotion to Europe is heartfelt -- even if it may have looked in recent weeks, as he fought to save his job as president of the European Parliament, that his primary concern was his own posting.
Schulz grew up in the border area between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and has relatives in all three countries. As a child, he listened to stories told by his grandfather about how he had to fight in World War I against his cousins in Belgium and the Netherlands. As he announced his move to Berlin, he also hailed European unification as being civilization's greatest achievement over the past century. There is hardly any other German politician who has conducted politics at the European level as passionately as Schulz has over the past 22 years.
The hour of departure could also mark a fresh start. For now, however, Schulz's political future is uncertain. When he took the post as president of the European Parliament, part of the deal was that he would step down before the end of his term. A debate has been underway in Brussels over whether to allow him to stay in office, but it is one he believes he no longer has any realistic chance of winning. So he felt he needed to announce his departure at a point when it still appeared to be at least partly voluntary. As he made his Thursday announcement, though, he wasn't at all sure what his political future would hold.
Room at the Top?
In recent weeks, Schulz's name has been suggested for a number of top posts within his center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). It has been suggested he could potentially become the head of the party, its chancellor candidate or perhaps even foreign minister once Frank-Walter Steinmeier, likewise a senior SPD member, leaves the post to become German president. The only way he could land one of these posts, though, is through his years-long friend Sigmar Gabriel, who heads the SPD and serves as Germany's economics minister. But Gabriel has so far been vague, which raises questions about just how reliable that friendship still is.
The only thing that's certain is that Schulz has been guaranteed a position as the party's leading candidate in federal parliamentary elections next year for the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, which virtually assures him a seat in the Bundestag. And that move will bring one of Germany's most spirited and engaged politicians from Brussels to Berlin -- but one who remains largely unknown to many in his home country.
For a man who was a serious alcoholic at the age of 24 and was close to committing suicide, Schulz has come a very long way. During the intensive therapy he underwent after his breakdown, he learned that one of his most dangerous weaknesses was that of setting goals that were too high -- and that he tends toward an overestimation of his own abilities.
In his youth, Schulz played on the football team in his hometown of Würselen, a suburb of Aachen. For years, he dreamed of one day becoming a professional player. Schulz was good at the sport, but not amazing and a serious knee injury abruptly brought that dream to an end. Looking back, he would later admit he had been overconfident about his pro-football dreams and that the goal hadn't been realistic. That's one of the reasons he descended into alcohol. Over the years, though, Schulz developed a pretty good feel for what he can achieve. He constantly questions himself, even more so recently given the scope of the potential new tasks that may be on the horizon.
He has no doubts he could tackle the foreign minister job. If he becomes Steinmeier's successor, he would become one of the most qualified and experienced German politicians ever to take the job. In addition to having a solid understanding of global affairs, Schulz also knows many important institutional leaders and elected officials around the world. When it comes to European politics, he is perhaps even better networked than Chancellor Angela Merkel. "When you've been a part of Europe as long as I have, then you know everybody," he once said.
As president of European Parliament, Schulz proved extremely adept at delicate diplomatic missions, such as his visit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in September following last summer's coup attempt and his visit with Iranian President Hassan Rohani in November 2015 to "intensify dialogue" between the EU and Iran a few months after the signing of the nuclear deal. Schulz is fluent in five foreign languages. His advisors believe the area that holds the greatest risk for Schulz is his tendency toward overly direct and at times flippant remarks. One has to know him extremely well not to get offended when he uses expressions like, "egg head," "sleepyhead" or "dumbass."
Over the summer, Schulz only tentatively addressed the question as to whether he might enter the ring as the SPD's chancellor candidate. The only reason those rumors even arose is that Gabriel's own stalling opened up room for speculation that he might not choose to run this time. Schulz began asking himself critical questions, knowing that if he wasn't absolutely devoted to the campaign, voters would notice. By the end of this process, he had decided that he would in fact run if Gabriel asked him to do so. Weeks have since passed and now it appears that his willingness to run has transformed into an active desire.
An Attractive Candidate
Paradoxically, the fact that many Germans are unfamiliar with him could actually make him an attractive candidate. After 11 years at the country's helm, Germans have become extremely familiar with Chancellor Merkel. Voters and journalists alike also appear to have passed judgment on Gabriel, and it is not a positive one. It may sound unfair, but it is unrealistic to think that voters would be willing to take a fresh look at Gabriel. With Schulz, on the other hand, very few Germans have actually developed a full opinion about the politician. At the very least, there would be room for surprise in a Schulz candidacy.
The actual role Schulz will assume when he comes to Berlin is now dependent on a man who Schulz staunchly refers to as a friend. Now, though, their respective ambitions are standing in each other's way and casting a shadow over their friendship. Over the summer, they agreed that one of the pair had to become the candidate, an oath taken by two lone wolves in their party who both rose out of modest upbringings. They even identified the potential areas of concern for a Gabriel candidacy and for a Schulz candidacy.
But it was followed by a tussle over the CETA negotiations, the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada. Schulz pushed hard for CETA and met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, securing additional concessions and talks with him. He arranged for a delegation of SPD politicians to travel to Canada to negotiate a further concession in advance of a delicate party convention. But Gabriel surprised everyone by cancelling the trip at the last minute. The move infuriated Schulz. "I'm not doing anything more on Canada and CETA," he said at the time. Ultimately, he did continue fighting and CETA was approved in the end, but the tensions between Schulz and Gabriel were mounting.
Even though Gabriel celebrated CETA and other political successes, new polls weighed heavily on him emotionally -- mostly measures of his political popularity showing that he would stand virtually no chance against Merkel in a run for the Chancellery. At the same time, his friend Martin Schulz saw his own popularity ratings rise. These figures changed something in the relationship between the two. They boosted Schulz's conviction that he would be the better candidate, but they also instilled a sense of distrust in Gabriel.
Party chair Gabriel also registered the fact that Schulz was becoming less willing to talk of a run for the Chancellery without becoming the SPD's new leader at the same time. If Gabriel had thought he could allow Schulz to become the SPD's chancellor candidate while retaining the party chair, he was mistaken. By this point, the unwanted rivalry between the two had developed an existential element. In early October, SPIEGEL reported that the mood in the party was turning against Gabriel and that Schulz was gaining supporters. Schulz took note of the article with satisfaction, but it wasn't as well received by Gabriel.
About six weeks ago, cracks in the friendship also became visible to the public. For two days, Schulz toured through Berlin, rushing from one public appearance to the next. He accepted an award and then attended a book launch party -- of the first biography to be written about him.
Gabriel wasn't pleased by Schulz's self-promotion. He began calling Schulz less frequently and became more suspicious and irritable. "He's waging a campaign against me," he confided to one of his advisors. Schulz also sensed things had changed. "He doesn't want me in Berlin," he complained to people close to him.
The tensions continued even after Steinmeier was declared the candidate to become Germany's president, a largely symbolic role, in mid-November. On that Monday morning, Gabriel had appeared euphoric at a meeting of the party's national executive. Schulz also should have been in a good mood -- after all, the Foreign Ministry post, a job that had long been appealing to him, had opened up. But Schulz wasn't in positive spirits. Later it emerged why.
Gabriel had been giving serious consideration not only to running for chancellor, but also shifting from the Economics to the Foreign Ministry -- his logic being that he might be able to bolster his own popularity ratings in the more high-profile role of foreign minister. If he were to do that, nothing would be left for Schulz.
The two then made another attempt to restore the mutual trust in their relationship. The next day, Schulz again flew from Brussels to Berlin, where he and Gabriel wanted to meet at a hotel for a face-to-face. The two did speak, but the clarity Schulz had hoped to receive on the foreign minister and chancellor issues didn't materialize. And it apparently still hasn't.
On Monday, during another meeting of the national executive, Gabriel said there was no need to rush. He also once again compelled the party executive as well as the SPD's parliamentary group to stick with his schedule, which called for the nomination of the party's chancellor candidate only at the end of January. The new foreign minister, an office that is held by the SPD as part of its government coalition agreement with Chancellor Merkel's conservatives, would also not be named until then.
Gabriel Likely to Run
Most SPD leaders now assume that Gabriel will run against Merkel. After months of procrastinating, few believe he would be irresponsible enough to bow out at the last minute. If he hadn't intended to run himself, why would he have kept Schulz at bay for so long? And wouldn't his announcement this week that his wife is expecting a second child have provided him the perfect opportunity to decline a candidacy if that is what he intended?
Gabriel appears to be occupied at the moment with the question of which position would be a better one from which to challenge Merkel. As vice chancellor and economics minister, his current role? As SPD floor leader, so that he can be freed of the cabinet discipline that would prevent him from attacking Merkel more openly on the campaign trail? Or as Steinmeier's successor as foreign minister? The hope is that the office would give Gabriel a certain amount of gravitas and dignity. It's common in Germany for foreign ministers to see a spike in their popularity ratings. The only hitch is that Gabriel hasn't yet displayed a whole lot of talent when it comes to diplomacy. During the trips he has taken abroad so far, he's shown more of a knack for generating unwanted headlines.
From Martin Schulz's perspective, it would be an affront if Gabriel were to become foreign minister. It would also certainly spell the end of a friendship that was already on shaky ground.
Some sources in the SPD say that Schulz should have been more vocal in his pursuit of the nomination. But Schulz wasn't, even though he had ample reason to assume he could have won out over Gabriel. It appears that friendship and loyalty kept him from doing so. These days, however, he is likely to be asking himself whether this friendship still even exists.
And if it doesn't? Would Schulz then have every reason to challenge Gabriel and to force a survey of party members? After all, it was Gabriel himself who suggested in a SPIEGEL interview in May that party members should be allowed to vote on who they wanted as their chancellor candidate.