BERLIN — There was a time when it was an unwritten rule that, if you wanted to run for German chancellor, you had to have been the Ministerpräsident of a German Bundesland. But, much like the value of a diploma, this rule has been watered down.
Angela Merkel herself was only a minister, before she became chancellor. Martin Schulz, in a way, was even less than that: only president of the European Parliament, a parliament that in the eyes of the German Constitutional Court is not even a real parliament and certainly not equivalent, in power or legitimacy, to the German Bundestag.
Schulz failed dramatically, in many respects, to be a good candidate. What, if anything, does this mean for Europe? Well, perhaps a lot.
Schulz entered German politics on a side step from the European Parliament and struggled to build name recognition in Germany. The hope then — only a year ago, even if it feels like an eternity today — was that he would use his European experience, network and knowledge to shift attention not only to himself as candidate, but also to the huge importance of the European Union for Germany. He would send the signal that Europe matters.
Schulz’s tragedy is more than a personal failure. It means that experience in the European institutions means nothing
Emmanuel Macron had not yet won the French presidency, and Europe was still in crisis mode, coping with the aftermath of its austerity policy, a banking crisis, a refugee influx, terror attacks and an increasing lack of trust and support among citizens. The general feeling was that the Continent had to get back on track and that Germany, the biggest and wealthiest country in the middle of Europe, would play an essential role.
That Schulz had thrown his hat in the ring for the chancellorship — and the (ultimately short-lived) surge in support that followed his announcement — seemed to indicate Germany was ready to pay attention to Europe. The SPD elected him party president with 100 percent of votes — a novelty in the party’s history. In March 2017, the idea that Germany could shift its Europe policy came as a relief and gave a real sense of hope — but more so outside Germany than among Germans themselves.
The rest of Europe had been hoping for a breath of fresh air in European policy for a long time. Since the peak of the euro crisis between 2010 and 2012, most European countries have closely observed Germany’s willingness to open up and engineer changes in the governance of the eurozone.
Many had placed their hopes in the government that came into power in October 2013, which saw the Free Democrats — the party that had blocked bailout deals for Greece — move out of government. But the years between 2013 and 2017 turned out to be another desert with respect to German changes in European policy.
Then the refugee crisis — in which Germany acted without much European consultation — changed the equation. Europe and Germany were at odds as rarely before. And yet, inside Germany, no one seemed to notice that Europe was desperately waiting for Germany to wake up to its European duties, or simply to care.
Enter Martin Schulz — the man who could only disappoint.
The man from Europe avoided Europe throughout his entire campaign, because his advisers told him to. In contrast to Macron, who won over the French with a clear commitment to Europe, Schulz didn’t utter a single sentence on the EU or Germany’s European policy, for fear that he would be singled out as the one who would waste German taxpayer money with a so-called Transferunion — Germany’s favorite word, when it comes to Europe.
He was most likely silent on Europe because he felt squeezed by the Alternative for Germany and even partially by Christian Lindner’s FDP, who were fishing for the votes of those upset by Germany’s alleged role as Europe’s “paymaster.”
Schulz didn’t fight the European cause. He didn’t explain to the Germans that Germany is the clear winner of most European policy: the single market, the euro, even the eurocrisis (because of the negative interest for its bonds).
He didn’t try to change the widespread preconceptions among German citizens on those issues. In short: He was all but bold on Europe. And with that, he lost what was the probably only asset he had in hand: Coming from Brussels, he could have been the one to bring the country back to where it belongs — in Europe. With all of its heart, mind and commitment.
There’ll be no second chance. Schulz fell short and, after a tragic post-election rollercoaster ride, collapsed. When he suggested, after the Social Democrats’ disastrous election performance and during initial coalition talks, that the EU should be heading for a “United States of Europe,” the idea already tasted stale. Why come out with this now, people asked.
A last glimpse of hope emerged when he was nominated to lead the foreign ministry. Together with Olaf Scholz at the helm of the finance ministry, Schulz looked set to be half of a dynamic SPD duo that could work out a long-overdue German answer to Macron’s EU proposals.
But it was not to be. The personal deal linked to the coalition agreement — in which Schulz would renounce the party presidency in exchange for the foreign ministry, overriding the party’s traditional decision-making process — drove the Parteibasis nuts.
As that anger threatened to sink the freshly negotiated coalition agreement, which SPD members will vote on in the coming weeks, Schulz dropped his claim to the ministry. But it was too late: The party is still in dissolution. And for the first time in its history, the Social Democrats have been overtaken by the far-right AfD in the polls.
The SPD’s Olaf Scholz, in Berlin | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
Scholz — while more or less open to European issues and problems — is not known to be particularly fond of Europe. Nor is anybody else in Germany, independent of the party. With Schulz definitively out, the energy, the vigor, the urgency of the Macron proposals have been squibbed before they could cross the Rhine.
No wonder that now, when it comes to what the new coalition will do, the talk is simply about showering Germany with more money — for education, schools, digital developments, retirement or whatever. Europe is not mentioned anymore. It is the campaign’s biggest loser.
Schulz’s tragedy is more than a personal failure. It means that experience in the European institutions means nothing. That a European background doesn’t qualify you to lead a national political campaign.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that a Eurocrat can’t sneak back into national politics: The minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia was previously in Brussels, and Friedrich Merz, an MEP for many years, is slated to become part of the next government. But Schulz’s fate shows that the European arena is not a booster for a national political career if your ambition is to turn German politics more European.
Europe, it turns out, is nothing to write home about in Germany. And that is very bad, both for Germany and for Europe.
CORRECTION: This piece has been corrected to clarify Angela Merkel’s constitutional role.
Ulrike Guérot is founder and director of the think tank European Democracy Lab, and professor for European policy and the study of democracy at Danube-University in Krems, Austria.