Why you should care
Europe’s No. 1 Socialist looks set to tilt his continent toward becoming a veritable United States of Europe — even if his coalition loses the parliamentary election.
The saddest moment of Martin Schulz’s life came at the age of 24. He was an unemployed drunk with no girlfriend and no high school degree. He contemplated suicide. Now he is Europe’s No. 1 socialist reaching for the top job — as president of the European Commission in Brussels. Schulz is leading Europe’s center-left parties into parliamentary elections on May 25 and his agenda is bold: Curb the power of banks, institute higher taxes on the rich and create a more centralized government system for Europe with a common fiscal policy.
But even if he doesn’t win outright, he may be about to change the balance of power between the European institutions for good and help create something like a United States of Europe. Currently polls see his alliance of socialist parties trailing slightly behind the conservatives led by Luxembourg’s long-time Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. But Schulz’ core demand is shared by his contender: The winner of the European Parliament elections, both say, should have the right to claim the position of President of the Commission.
That’s no technicality. It’s a huge deal.
In the past, the governments of Europe alone chose the President. Yet following the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, the President must now be ratified by the popularly elected parliament after being nominated by the heads of individual governments. That procedural change makes the parliament powerful for the first time, and could even result in an ugly standoff, should the governments deny the voters’ will.
Schulz plays — and relishes — the role of the average Joe challenging the rich and powerful.
Should Schulz and Junker prevail, it could presage a permanent shift of power away from individual, national governments to the European Parliament, which would turn the EU from an association of sovereign states into one supranational state, with possible consequences for everything from tax policy and European defense to the global balance of power.
In the past, the European Parliament, nestled in the picturesque town of Strasbourg on the French side of the German-French border, was largely a debating club, its members recruited from fat cats or second-rate politicians.
In Germany, the term “Herr Schulz” is synonymous with Mr. Average, but this Mister Schulz, born into a mining family in a the small town near Aachen, is anything but. With little formal education, the 58-year-old is a tough nut for physical scientist German Chancellor Angela Merkel to handle. Unlike his contender, the hugely experienced former PM Juncker, Schulz has no administrative experience aside from a few years as mayor in a town of 35,000. Rather, he’s been a dyed-in-the wool parliamentarian, known best for his passionately held left-wing views. Some call him a left-wing Rottweiler.
Key Facts about Europe’s Political System
- The European Commission in Brussels is the EU’s civil service. It is headed by 28 commissioners (one from each member state) and acts like Europe’s cabinet government, chaired by the Commission’s President.
- The Council of Europe is Europe’s most powerful institution. It consists of the heads of government of all 28 member states, it approves legislation proposed by the European Commission and chooses the President of the Commission.
- The European Parliament, based in Strasbourg, has had little political muscle in the past, but successive EU treaties have given to it greater powers. It can now also start legislative initiatives and block legislation. Since the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon it also has the right to approve or disapprove the Council’s choice for the President of the Commission.
Schulz worked his way up the ranks of the Social Democratic Party in Germany while also managing a small bookstore in his hometown. In Strasbourg, he earned respect even from opposing benches, fighting to raise the profile of a parliament rarely taken seriously by the European public. Parliament thanked him by electing him their president two years ago.
When Shulz campaigns, he speaks often of his grandfather — a hard-working Catholic, toiling in the lignite pits “who was proud never to have uttered the words ‘Heil Hitler.’” Equally compelling? His stories about his low point — when he had nothing to live for, got dumped by his girlfriend because he was drunk every day, and almost committed suicide. Instead, he checked into a treatment center to turn his life around. Which makes it fitting that the book he returns to, over and over, is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath about hardships during the American Great Depression.
Schulz might have overcome his addiction, but today he is no stranger to the obsessive behavior of an addict. He works 18 hours a day, rarely seeing his wife and two children. Drivers at the parliament’s carpool refuse to work for him because his schedule is excessive.
And he is tough. A classic Schulz-moment in the European Parliament? His clash with billionaire Prime Minister Berlusconi; the Italian compared him to a Nazi concentration camp guard. “Later,” said Schulz to a journalist from the magazine Spiegel, “I ran into Berlusconi’s chief of staff and he asked me if I liked riding escalators. I said, ‘Yes, I do,’ then he murmured something about stairs being tricky as it’s so easy to trip — it was just like in a Mafia movie.”
Schulz’s views might be distinctly left-wing, but in one respect he is very much in line with Merkel: He believes in the United States of Europe.
Like a movie, certainly, and one in which Schulz plays — and relishes — the role of the average Joe challenging the rich and powerful. At the same time, you could easily read Schulz as an over-hungry upstart longing for prestige. Case in point: When the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 he lobbied heavily behind the scenes to be the one the medal is symbolically handed to at the ceremony.
Schulz’s views might be distinctly left-wing, but in one respect he is very much in line with Merkel: He believes in the United States of Europe and opposes the idea that Europe is just a loose association of nation states. He effectively wants European countries to melt into one federal state at the expense of national governments’ power.
Which all makes Schulz the nemesis of Europe’s growing populace of Euro-weary right-wingers — politicos who object to the notion of one unified European state. Their argument? It’s in part cultural — an attempt to jealously guard unique cultural traditions linked to nation-states. But it’s also economic. The Euroskeptics believe the economies of the 28 countries – ranging from poor nations like Bulgaria or Greece to wealthy economies like Germany or the Netherlands — are far too different to share the same fiscal policies. And then there’s the rich nations’ widespread concern that taxpayers’ money will drain away toward poorer member states in the south and east of the continent.
But on Schulz’s side of the aisle, the idea of United States of Europe isn’t so radical. Especially not for a boy raised in the town of Aachen — the crowning place of the rulers of the bygone medieval European empire. Aachen was, historically, something like the mystical center of the Holy Roman Empire, a cluster of sovereign and semi-autonomous states bound together by common laws inherited from Roman times. A child of that town might find it natural to consider the isolated nation-state as an aberrance of history that only cost sweat and blood.