• Schulz was conspicuous by his absence during a presidential debate on Monday (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Feature

Schulz: King of Parliament (and backroom deals)

01.07.14 @ 18:43

  1. By Benjamin Fox
  2. Benjamin email

BRUSSELS - In April, Socialist Spitzenkandidat Martin Schulz could hardly have been clearer. "The days of the Commission president being nominated by a backroom deal are over," he told his fellow candidates, and the media.

On Tuesday, the same Martin Schulz was re-elected for an unprecedented second term as the European Parliament's president on the back of a deal cut in Berlin which, if not actually made in a “back-room”, was neither transparent nor terribly democratic.

If that seems like a contradiction, it would not be the first in his long career.

A book-seller by trade before he entered politics, the 58-year old Schulz has been an MEP for 20 years. His breakthrough into public awareness came in 2003, when Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi compared him to a Nazi commandant during a parliamentary debate.

Schulz was suitably furious in public but has reaped the rewards ever since. Less than a year later he was leader of the Socialist group, a position he would hold until finally taking over the Parliament presidency in 2012.

He is one of very few Brussels politicians to have been able to build a strong public profile at home, largely because of his talent for self-promotion.

Most of the Parliament's more talented deputies build their reputations in the assembly's powerful legislative committees - the nuts and bolts of lawmaking. Not Schulz.

As Parliament president he has been more active and vocal than his predecessors, turning what is essentially a Speaker position into a political role.

His pre-summit press conferences have been abrasive, fun, and often more quote-worthy than those given by his institutional colleagues, the European Commission’s Jose Manuel Barroso and the EU Council’s Herman van Rompuy.

For an institution seeking to flex its new Lisbon treaty muscles, Schulz's charisma and fighting instincts were a good match.

It went beyond set-piece press events. Despite not being involved in any of the details, Schulz was the assembly's front-man in the drawn out negotiations on the EU's seven-year budget and, more successfully, in demanding government concessions that increased MEPs' powers over the new banking union regime.

But his greatest, or most infamous, achievement must be as a Spitzenkandidat.

If anyone is responsible for Jean-Claude Juncker's Commission presidency or, indeed, the concept of Spitzenkandidaten itself, it is Martin Schulz.

The German had been positioning himself for the Socialist nomination for several years and campaigned with gusto. His nomination helped bounce the EPP into selecting Mr Juncker.

Unlike his EPP rival, Schulz performed strongly by most accounts during the campaign, bringing his combative style to the series of “presidential” debates.

But the May election results saw his centre-left bloc manage only to tread water - its 191 seats comfortably fewer than the 221 claimed by Juncker's EPP.

If Schulz was to be denied the EU's top job, he was not going to accept being left empty-handed.

His initial plan was to become a commission vice-president with an economic or foreign affairs portfolio in a Juncker commission. When this was thwarted by Angela Merkel's unwillingness to give her social democrat coalition partners Germany's EU post, Schulz's attentions shifted from the Berlaymont back to Parliament. Had his bid for the Parliament's top chair failed, the final consolation prize would have been a return to lead the S&D deputies.

One of the main charges critics lay against him is “control freakery”. In the weeks following the May election results, Schulz strong-armed his group into appointing him as acting leader so that he could lead negotiations with the EPP. He personally rung around reluctant delegations.

One Socialist group source told EUobserver the main topic of post-election group meetings was the question of “What to do about Martin?”.

“What to do about Martin” has also come at a high political cost to his political family.

Under the EP’s so-called Grand Coalition deal, Schulz will only hold the Parliament presidency for half of the new five year term, when an EPP deputy will take the job. But by staking so much importance on securing him the post, German social democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel risks giving up a far greater prize - the European Council presidency which should have been in the gift of the centre-left.

More importantly, the whole process leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

At a debate for the four Presidency candidates in Strasbourg on Monday night, Schulz was conspicuous by his absence, leaving leftist candidate Pablo Iglesias to comment that "Mr Schulz wants to be President but he doesn't want to debate".

Schulz's absence - blamed on an agenda clash - is particularly unfortunate given that he has spent the last week courting support from the parliament's political groups at private hearings.

It only makes it more ironic that, despite the strong public performances, and his protestations against EU top jobs being decided on the basis of back-room deals, his second tenure as Parliament president is the result of precisely that.