Martin Schulz took an unconventional path to power.
From humble beginnings, the one-time high school dropout rose to become one of the most powerful men in Europe.
But now, the term of the plain-talking German Social Democrat as president of the Eurpean Parliament – one of the European Union’s top three positions – is drawing to a close. He will step down in January next year, just months ahead of German federal elections.
The question many are now asking: Will Mr. Schulz, 60, leave behind his impressive legacy in Europe to seek a political encore in Berlin?
For now at least, Mr. Schulz is telling everyone no.
“My place is in Europe. I can do more in Brussels. I'll fight for Europe every day until January 2017. I don't think about what happens then.”
“My place is in Europe,” he recently said at an Italian restaurant in Würselen, his small hometown in western Germany near the Dutch and Belgian borders, where he launched his political career in the 1980s – first as city councilor and then with an 11-year stint as mayor.
But Mr. Schulz’s heart has always been in Brussels and Strasbourg, in the European corridors of power.
“I can do more in Brussels,” he said over lunch in the restaurant, shortly after Würselen’s current mayor, Arno Nelles, distinguished him with an honorary citizenship award. “I’ll fight for Europe every day until January 2017. I don’t think about what happens then.”
It was one of several awards Mr. Schulz received last year, including the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, which is given by the city of Aachen for promoting European unity. Mr. Schulz was the first Social Democrat to receive the award, in part in recognition of his efforts to make E.U. election processes more democratic.
Born in Eschweiler near Aachen in 1955, Mr. Schulz grew up the youngest son of committed politicians from opposing sides of the political spectrum. His father, the eleventh child of a large working-class mining family, was a member of center-left Social Democratic Party, whereas his mother was the founder of the local branch of the center-right Christian Democratic Union.
Together with his four older siblings, Mr. Schulz attended school in nearby Würselen, where the family later moved. All five children later joined the SPD, and politics dominated daily discussions at the dinner table.
From a young age, Mr. Schulz was often seen playing soccer. As a left back in the local club Rhenania 05, Mr. Schulz constantly pushed his teammates to excel despite the small team’s humble credentials.
“He wasn’t exactly technically delicate,” said former team mate Franz-Josef Hansen. “But he was the locomotive who pulled us onwards.”
But Mr. Schulz’s ambition to become a professional soccer player soon began to affect his school studies. After being held back for two years, he dropped out of high-school at 16 to begin training as a bookseller.
Then disaster struck. Various knee injuries forced him to abandon his dreams of a career in soccer. Deeply disappointed, the young man fell into depression and turned to drink. By 1980, at the age of 24, he had sunk into full-blown alcoholism.
When his sister and his best friend staged an intervention, begging him to give up the booze, Mr. Schulz has admitted he considered taking his own life. Instead, with the help of his elder brother, a doctor, he stopped drinking – and hasn’t touched a drop since.
It proved a turning point in the young man’s life. Mr. Schulz joined his siblings in the Young Socialists, where he quickly impressed others with his uncompromising manner. In 1982, he opened his own book shop and began holding political meetings in the back room.
“That’s where we always met to talk politics,” said Mr. Schulz, who soon began making waves in the small town politics of Aachen. By the age of 31, he became the youngest mayor in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Twenty-eight years later, Mr. Schulz is much admired in Germany for his no-nonsense approach. Unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Joachim Gauck, Mr. Schulz can be trusted to tell things as they are.
Back in 2003, he managed to annoy then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with his plain-talking criticism, promting the Italian leader to compare the German politician likened to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Observers agree that this kind of directness is often missing in German politics. At a recent appearance in Berlin, Mr. Schulz was greeted with rapturous applause and eager autograph-seekers.
“Martin isn't one for half measures. In his job you need a bit of theatrical talent - and clout.”
Much of his appeal stems from his all-or-nothing political gambles. “Martin isn’t one for half measures,” said his sister Doris Harst. “In his job you need a bit of theatrical talent – and clout.”
For sure, the idealist, dreamer and sometime visionary has never lacked self confidence. When in October 2013, Pope Francis invited him to an audience in Rome and asked him to pray for him, Mr. Schulz replied: “Don’t take it the wrong way, but wouldn’t it be better the other way around?”
Since entering the halls of Strasbourg and Brussels as the German Europe campaign manager in the late 1990s, Mr. Schulz has managed to gain the ear of Europe’s heads of state. Chief among them stands his old friend French President Francois Hollande, whom he first met in 1994 when they were both members of the European Parliament.
When in 2007, Mr. Hollande’s dreams of the French Presidency were initially dashed and his marriage fell apart, Mr. Schulz proved himself one of his truest friends. In return, he is now welcome anytime in the Élysée Palace, a vital and enviable advantage in European political circles.
Now, the European parliament president has a seat at every crisis meeting table, making him the most powerful holder of the presidential title to date.
But Mr. Schulz is running out of time to save his beloved Europe, which is facing a multitude of crises, from Greece to refugees and rising euroscepticsm. With just another year left in his post, the whisperings and speculation about Mr. Schulz’s future are growing louder.
Most rumors center around a possible move to Berlin in time for the next German federal elections in 2017. Many hope Mr. Schulz will prove an important asset in the Social Democrats’ fight to finally topple the long-reigning Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr. Schulz has publically said he would prefer to stay in Brussels. Yet his sister Doris suspects he may be tempted to return Germany where he can make an even bigger difference.
Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. Simon Book is part of Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org