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20th Jan 2019

EUobserved

Schulz: the end of a one-man parliament

  • As president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz worked hard to raise the profile of the house, but also his own. (Photo: European Parliament)

Many glowing things have been said about Martin Schulz since he announced on Thursday (24 November) that he would leave Brussels next year to try his luck in German politics instead.

His colleagues paid tribute so solemn that one would be pardoned to forget that Schulz left because they wouldn't support him for another term as the president of the European Parliament.

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The former book-seller from Wuerselen first entered the parliament in 1994 and rose to prominence nine years later, when Italy's then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi compared him to a Nazi guard.

Schulz's answer - that he respected the victims of fascism too much to comment on the jibe - was widely lauded.

In the following years, Schulz used his knack with the media to build his position.

In 2012, he took the helm at the European Parliament and set out to upgrade what used to be a "speaker's role" to one that would put him on par with the leaders of other EU institutions.

Most notably, he pushed through the Spitzenkandidat system, which gave greater visibility to EP elections and linked their outcome to the appointment of the commission's leader - much against the will of EU governments.

In the process, Schulz put himself forward as the Socialist frontman. While his group failed to win the 2014 elections, Schulz' own SPD raised its score in Germany by an impressive six percentage points, to 27.6 percent.

"Throughout my time in the European Parliament whether as an MEP, as head of the Socialist Group or as President, I have strived to strengthen the credibility and visibility of European politics and the influence of the directly elected European Parliament," Schulz himself summarised on Thursday.

However, his critics question whether he raised the profile of the parliament or his own.

When he failed to become president of the commission, and despite having campaigned for an end to backroom deals, Schulz plotted to extend his term for an unprecedented second mandate - at a high cost to his political family, which gave up the European Council presidency post in exchange.

His ties with the leaders of other institutions - the commission's Jean-Claude Juncker, in particular - have seemed too cosy to safeguard the parliament was really scrutinising the EU executive.

The special friendship of Schulz and Juncker was highlighted after a joint interview with Der Spiegel this summer, in which Schulz revealed he used to call Juncker every morning.

The two took many decisions together, rather than through the parliament's conference of presidents, where all the group leaders are represented.

One recent example: at last week's conference, Schulz announced that commissioner Guenther Oettinger wouldn't have to face a hearing process in parliament before being promoted to the budget post - despite his own S&D group demanding to grill the German conservative over his recent racist and homophobic remarks, as well as the revelation that he flew in a Kremlin lobbyist's jet.

As he tried to write history again by being re-elected for a third term, Schulz cultivated ties with the EPP group, using his presidential powers to help the centre-right halt a ban on second jobs for MEPs and kill a report aimed at making lawmakers more accountable and lawmaking more traceable.

Schulz has also been under fire for using parliament resources during his campaign to become the president of the European Commission, the Spitzenkandidaten process. The S&D and EPP helped to pass amendments muffling the affair.

It remains to be seen whether a centre-right MEP would be a better president.

But there is a chance that the S&D group will become a true opposition force when it is freed from a leader using it for his own promotion.

Weber calls for stability after Schulz exit

The leader of the parliament's centre-right group Manfred Weber urged pro-European groups to rally behind a joint candidate as the assembly's next president.

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