The Only Thing That Can Beat Merkel Is Anti-Merkel

The sudden surge of the folksy Martin Schulz has produced more excitement than German politics has seen in years.


BERLIN — In early February, when Angela Merkel announced her fourth straight candidacy for Germany’s chancellorship, she was a sure bet to walk away with it. She looked unbeatable — well on her way toward tying the record with Helmut Kohl as Germany’s longest-serving leader. But that was a whole three weeks ago.

Since then, a peripheral figure from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) named Martin Schulz has unexpectedly stepped into the race and turned it inside out. In a matter of days, he shot up like a meteor in the polls, landing neck-and-neck with the chancellor. He outscores Merkel on credibility and likability. There’s suddenly a real campaign on in Germany in advance of the national vote in September, and Germans say thank goodness.

The average German knows Schulz, a bald and bearded, 62-year-old Rheinlander with unglamorous, metal-frame glasses, mostly from what they’ve seen of him on television politicking in the European Parliament, the European Union’s legislature, where he, very uncharacteristically for a German politico, made his career. In fact, his entire political biography is anomalous: Schulz, the youngest of five, was born to a Catholic, working-class family in the diminutive village of Würselen, which lies just kilometers from the Dutch and Belgian borders. He dropped out of one of Germany’s elite high schools to attempt a professional soccer career. He was a defender for local amateur side Rhenania Würselen until his career hopes were dashed by an injured knee — and upon failing at that ran a used book store with his sister in their hometown. His defeats and his demons drove him to the bottle, derailing his life.

But Martin Schulz picked himself up, ran for village mayor (a volunteer post for which he was the sole candidate) as a Social Democrat, and served in that office for a decade before winning a seat in the European Parliament in 1994. The Rhineland branch of the SPD had already discerned something special about Schulz when it lifted him out of Würselen and placed him on the Brussels stage. He was a likeable, wily, gregarious man of the people with a penchant for doing battle in the political ring. He could talk and talk, and in multiple languages, too. An autodidact, he already knew French and Dutch, and then on the job learned to speak Italian and Spanish — all fluently.

In Brussels, he flew up the scaffolding, heading Germany’s social democratic faction first, then the parliament’s all-EU socialist bloc. At the time, the EU legislature, which had so little power that critics mocked it as a jumped-up debating society, didn’t usually make prime-time German news. Schulz briefly copped headlines in 2003 when he went toe-to-toe with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was then the president of the European Council president – though it was less for what he’d said or done than what was said to him. Schulz took the Italian to task for sponsoring an immunity law in Italy while he was on trial for bribery charges. ”Mr. Schulz,” Berlusconi shot back with a smile on his face, ”I know there is a man in Italy producing a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of leader. You would be perfect.” (Later, Berlusconi falsely claimed that the Germans don’t even acknowledge that Nazi death camps existed.) Other than that, however, in Germany at least, Schulz kept a low profile. In 2014, Schulz led the EU social democrats to a strong second-place finish in elections and was named the legislature’s president.

Schulz’s abrupt departure from Brussels and arrival in German politics was so astonishing because the SPD already had a top dog. Sigmar Gabriel was the party’s designated Kanzlerkandidat. But under the rotund economy minister and vice-chancellor in the Merkel-led “grand coalition” of social and Christian democrats, the SPD’s numbers went from bad (26 percent in the 2013 election) to worse (around 20 percent in polls in early 2017) — and appeared to be falling further by the month, despite a booming economy and record-low unemployment.

“Gabriel realized that he simply stood no chance,” says Stefan Reinecke of the left-wing daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung. “His downfall was due, largely, to the contradiction between his role as SPD frontman and, at the same time, as economy minister in Merkel’s cabinet. He couldn’t champion German business and the government, on the one hand, and speak out for workers, the unions and the have-nots, on the other.”

Gabriel’s demise was not out of the blue, but Schulz’s dramatic appearance in Berlin and the overnight trajectory change in the fortunes of the SPD has observers scrambling for explanations and suddenly wondering what might be next. After all, the chancellor’s sky-high popularity had dropped to mortal levels during and after the refugee crisis in 2015, but Merkel was still a shoo-in, most believed, as long as there wasn’t another viable candidate. Then, out of nowhere, there was.

In terms of personality, Schulz is in many ways the “anti-Merkel.” He’s a showman, loquacious, demonstrative, folksy, and empathetic — everything she isn’t. Moreover, and more obviously though not less important, he’s a man, from western Germany, a former athlete, father of two, and one of the guys. And there’s a bit of populist in Martin Schulz from Würselen, too. He can shoot the breeze with the little man, and he appears to listen, too. Even the Rhinelander’s name is down to earth: There are thousands of “Martin Schulzes” in Germany, Schulz being one of the most common surnames.

Moreover, in striking contrast to the ever-cautious, dispassionate Merkel, Schulz speaks his mind forthrightly, often from the cuff. The chancellor’s patient, restrained response to U.S. President Donald Trump was classic Merkel. Her tough talk took the form of reminding Trump of the human rights content of the Geneva Conventions. Schulz, on the other hand, opted for an in-his-face approach from the get-go, calling Trump an “irresponsible man” and a threat to democracy. “Trump isn’t just a problem for the EU,” he said, “but for the whole world.”

Schulz’s energy is another factor that distinguishes him from an Angela Merkel who is nearing the end of a third, grueling term. “Schulz is pure adrenaline compared to Merkel,” one EU insider close to the think tank community told me. Right after Gabriel’s sober resignation in the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin, Schulz bounded onto the stage, seemingly gleeful about the prospect of taking on Merkel and becoming chancellor — as if he had been waiting his entire life for the opportunity. Since then, he’s been crisscrossing the republic non-stop to meet with the common burgher, gauge their mood, hear their stories.

Merkel, by contrast, appeared lethargic and worn-out when she declared her candidacy. Had you turned off the television’s sound, you might have thought she was reading her schedule for the following week. Her body language was tired. In fact, she had waited until just recently to announce because, insiders say, she was hesitant to run again. “Merkel’s first two terms in office were pretty easy going,” said Markus Feldenkirchen of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, noting that the 2008 banking crisis was a legitimate, high-tension brouhaha. “But then came the whole migration crisis with so many of her allies against her. The battling with the CSU [Bavaria’s Christian democrats] in particular took a lot out of her.”

Apparently, Merkel was ready to hand over the baton — but there was no clear successor in the party to take it, so thoroughly had she expunged the CDU of rivals. Moreover, the shock of Brexit and the Trump presidency convinced Merkel that she was still needed in Europe at such a precarious moment. The CDU is betting on this, too — namely that in such volatile times, Germans want a steady hand on the rudder — and Merkel has proven she’s that. But now it looks like, rather than finding an electorate seeking stability, the party underestimated the extent of Merkel-fatigue, and is now flailing in the wind, trying desperately to knock Schulz down to size.

Schulz’s campaign material is straight out of the old SPD canon: pensions, wages, welfare, progressive taxation, social justice, the plight of the kleiner Mann. These are traditional social-democrat fare, which the SPD — to its distinct misfortune — has been unable to capitalize on since the early 2000s, when Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schröder, oversaw the passage of wide-ranging reforms that curbed worker’s rights and cut taxes for the wealthy. Although supporters of the Schröder reforms, including Gabriel, claim they’re largely responsible for the German economy’s dramatic upswing since then, others say they were inconsequential and served only to alienate the SPD from its working-class constituencies. Indeed, the party still hasn’t recovered. That is, unless Schulz, who had nothing to do with measures, can woo back traditional SPD voters who either don’t vote or drifted to other parties.

These are also the issues on which Schulz has to prove that he knows and cares deeply about. For two decades now he’s hobnobbed around Europe’s capitals, strategizing in the sanitized EU bubble of Brussels. There he didn’t do anything for the little man. His credentials as a statesman — and a true-blue European — are flawless, but can he win elections, drive forward policy, and outfox German politicos who know the ropes in Germany?

Schulz has so far, and probably will in the future, steer as wide a berth as possible from the hot-button issues around refugees and migration. Essentially, he is on Merkel’s side, but realizes that there’s nothing to gain in these waters: Many traditional, blue-collar Social Democratic voters see migrants as a threat to their well-being, so much so that a slice of SPD faithful has peeled off to the party of the far right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is almost certain to win seats in the Bundestag this year. Schultz does Merkel an enormous, though unintentional, favor by directing discourse away from the right-wing topics of security, integration, crime, terrorism, borders, and refugees that have hurt her so badly. A campaign centered on these topics plays right into the AfD’s hands. But no candidate can ignore them forever, and Schulz may drop down some in the polls when he finally does engage.

Klaus Linsenmeier of the Brussels office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to the Greens, is of two minds about Schulz, who he’s observed closely in the EU’s capital. “He’s no St. Martin but rather a cagey character who understands power and isn’t bashful about vying for it,” said Linsenmeier. “But I ask myself: What has Schulz ever really accomplished?” Linsenmeier admits that Schulz did help wrest significant competencies for the EU parliament, giving it real power in lawmaking, which raised its profile and made it much more than a debating society. “But neither in Würselen nor Brussels does he have much to his credit. And then he picked up and left Brussels last year, causing the grand coalition in the European Parliament to fall apart and now we have a very conservative president [Antonio Tajani] in his place. The left lost everything.”

Schulz’s campaign strategy isn’t to attack Merkel directly. “This is what the far right is doing,” says Reinecke, referring to the AfD. “Schulz says he wants to do things differently, but not that differently. German voters are conservative and although Merkel’s not fresh anymore, most Germans trust her,” adds Reinecke. Schulz’s strategy, says Reinecke, is to win back traditional SPD voters, a plan of attack that has its pitfalls in an essentially healthy economy with record-low unemployment.

Moreover, Schulz and Merkel could well wind up collaborating closely in the chancellery. All signs point to a renewed grand coalition between the major parties. While Schulz and the Social Democrats claim that their preference is a leftist coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke (the Left), the three parties will probably fall short of a majority. The Christian Democrats’ best bet will be the SPD, again. In fact, another grand coalition, one led by Merkel and Schulz — a liberal Christian democrat and a conservative social democrat — would probably work quite well. Even though Schulz is the anti-Merkel in terms of temperament and demeanor, he diverges only very little from the centrist Merkel on politics. On EU reform, eurozone politics, relations with Russia, the rise of the far right, ecology, and the trans-Atlantic relationship, there seems to be precious little that separates Merkel and the Anti-Merkel. The two might offset and complement each other deftly — making Merkel’s fourth, and last, term her most productive yet.

Photo credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/GettyImages

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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