The rivals scrambling to succeed Schulz

Martin Schulz, so long a fixture in European Union politics, is finally leaving the European Parliament, where he has been president for almost five years. First elected in 1994, Schulz’s time patrolling the Parliament’s cavernous chambers has seen MEPs gain more power and influence, even as the European project has endured its greatest crises since its creation six decades ago. While he now positions himself as the centre-left’s standard bearer in Germany and challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the focus in Brussels passes to Schulz’s would-be successors, and the intricate political calculations needed to restack the EU’s house of cards.

The race for the presidency could be one of the most open in recent years, as all the main political groups vie to push their candidates for the January 17 ballot. From Germany’s Manfred Weber and Ireland’s Mairead McGuinness on the centre right to liberal lion Guy Verhofstadt and Italian socialist Gianni Pittella, there is no shortage of high profile MEPs who could follow Schulz.

Nor can we assume a backroom deal, like previous years. Under power-sharing arrangements, the presidency of the Parliament was supposed to switch between the major party groups every two-and-a-half years, but this has been honoured more in the breach. Schulz, who stayed president for five years, was even manoeuvring to stay for an unprecedented third term. Before him, the parliament’s biggest political group, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), had presidents in two consecutive terms, with Germany’s Hans-Gert Pöttering and then Poland’s Jerzy Buzek.

The EPP will choose its candidate on December 13, and the immediate question is whether its leader, Manfred Weber, 44, will present himself. A key Merkel ally, Weber has been an MEP since 2004 and EPP leader since 2014. But he has reasons not to stand: Weber enjoys his powerful party leader position, and he is wary about the image of another German taking over from Schulz.

A more likely EPP candidate is Mairead McGuinness, 57, a former TV journalist who is currently a Parliament vice president. An MEP since 2004, and candidate for the Irish presidency in 2011, her elevation would go some way to redressing the gender balance: the Parliament has had 12 male presidents and just two women over its 37-year existence (Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine, both French, held the presidency for a mere five years between them).

McGuinness’s strongest EPP rival is France’s Alain Lamassoure, 72, a veteran politician who was first elected to the Parliament in 1989. A former budget minister, an énarque, and one of the authors of the ill-fated European Convention, he might be seen as too federalist, even for MEPs.

Another possible EPP contender is former Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, 63: a former journalist, co-founder of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, he was first elected as MEP in 1994, and EPP Vice-President since 2002. But while telegenic, critics say he has a short attention span and little interest in details.

Schulz’s announcement surprised his successor as the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) leader, Gianni Pittella, but the Italian has now joined the fray, insisting that “the right-wing monopoly over the EU institutions” is unacceptable. Pittella, 58, is aware that while Schulz’s five years as president were important in turning the Parliament into a policy shaper and influential debating chamber, it left the S&D’s own power too dependent on the German’s position. With Schulz gone, the other political groups are unlikely to give it any more favours.

The liberal group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has not held the Parliament presidency since Ireland’s Pat Cox in 2004, and can only scramble together 69 MEPs. But ALDE parties lead seven of the EU’s 28 governments, and they still hoping to position themselves as a compromise between the EPP and S&D groups.

Guy Verhofstadt, 63, who has led the ALDE since 2009, has yet to say whether he will stand but – like Weber – he might sit this out. The firebrand former Belgian Prime Minister already has a high profile position as the Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, and may be loathe to lose his licence to speak out if he takes on the responsibility of the presidency. France’s Sylvie Goulard, 51, is now seen as the liberal front runner. A member of François Bayrou’s centrist MoDem, who was once an advisor to former European Commission Romano Prodi, she is the author of Goodbye Europe, a passionate call for EU renewal.

Finally, it is worth noting Belgium’s Helga Stevens, running as candidate for the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR): a member of the N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party, she is also the president of the Parliament’s Disabilities Intergroup.

Even if the Parliament President is not as powerful as the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, Schultz’s departure also creates a gap in one of the major offices of the EU. It could mean the centre-left will have none of the leadership positions in three of the top EU institutions, potentially unbalancing the political make-up.

Schulz, who was the S&D leader in the Parliament for eight years until 2012, has a famously cosy relationship with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Indeed, Juncker recently hinted he would step down if the German departed, although his aides moved quickly dismiss such suggestions.

European Council President Donald Tusk – who, like Juncker, hails from the EPP – is still waiting to see if his two-and-a-half-year term is renewed early next year, potentially opening his position up to the S&D. But the main hostility to Tusk continuing his presidency comes from his home state, Poland, where the right wing government is reluctant to endorse the former leader of their domestic opposition. Yet Warsaw is unlikely to block Tusk if it means giving the job to the centre left.

The centre left already has three important political posts in Brussels: Italy’s Federica Mogherini is the EU’s High Representative Foreign Affairs, Jeroen Dijsselbloem from the Netherlands is the President of the Eurogroup, and Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg is NATO’s Secretary General. But none of these are as high profile as the presidents of the top EU institutions.

There is another perspective, however, that says the S&D may have to just accept the changing political landscape. It is the second biggest political group in the Parliament, and more than twice the size of the next largest group, but with just 187 MEPs out of 751, that is still less than a quarter. The S&D’s national-level grouping, the Party of European Socialists (PES), leads eight of the EU’s 28 governments, yet they are a declining force. In France, for example, the Socialists are expected to lose both badly in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, while in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could be forced out if his December 4 referendum gambit fails.

All this suggests that whoever emerges as the Parliament’s new president, Martin Schulz’s reign may have marked a high point for the socialists in the EU.

Words Leo Cendrowicz & David Harley (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Gluemoon

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