German Elections

The Reluctant European

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The French and German elections this year are likely to shape the future of the European Union.

  • Facts


    • France will elect a new president in April and May, with Emmanuel Macron currently leading the polls.
    • After state elections in May, Germany will vote for a new national parliament in September.
    • Mr. Schulz is the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, and previously served as the president of the European Parliament.
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EU Parliament Session in Strasbourg
Martin Schulz. Too defensive over Europe? Source: DPA/Picture Alliance

Martin Schulz appears to have everything on track. Currently, he is looking toward a likely victory in May for his Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the regional elections of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Shortly thereafter, in June, Mr. Schulz will unveil his party’s platform for this fall’s federal elections. Taxes, pensions and education are all on the agenda.

Yet there’s one issue where the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor is noticeably vague: Europe.

This is somewhat surprising – and not just because Mr. Schulz was a member of the European Parliament for 20 years and its president for five. In these turbulent times, the European Union has regained some of its popular appeal as a bulwark against the nationalism that threatens both here and in the US.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, the former finance minister vying to become president this year, has climbed in the opinion polls, not despite his support for the EU, but because of it.

When Mr. Schulz praises Europe’s open borders and freedoms he gets standing ovations. But he is reluctant to pin down a vision for the 28-nation bloc. He says little on further financial aid for Greece, the future of the common currency, or Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism.

Everyone would have to make compromises where it hurts the most: Germans with their tax money, the French with their bloated state apparatus.

Presiding over the European Parliament, Mr. Schulz had strong opinions on each of these issues. In Brussels, he fought for more financial cooperation among EU members, and for Turkey’s accession to the union. He now rejects both ideas, but has presented no alternatives.

Indeed, according to information obtained by German weekly Die Zeit, the first drafts of the SPD election manifesto are very general on Europe. There is no mention of so-called eurobonds (jointly issued government bonds) or a common unemployment benefit scheme across the EU.

Overall, Mr. Schulz appears to be tempering his enthusiasm for the EU. This is partially because the German passion for the European project usually ends where money comes in. While a large majority of Germans approve of the EU and the euro in principle, most also reject a debt haircut for Greece and eurobonds.

And Mr. Schulz’ silence appears all the more pronounced in light another prominent Social Democrat’s outspokenness on Europe: foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Mr. Gabriel was long expected to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in the federal election but stepped aside to make way for Mr. Schulz earlier this year. Recently, he has been a vocal critic of Turkish officials campaigning in Germany, and has reassured Greece he understood the country’s financial concerns . He has even suggested Germany should fork out more money for the EU budget.

According to SPD insiders, the Schulz campaign hasn’t been thrilled about Mr. Gabriel’s sudden European enthusiasm. Party skeptics fear he will feed the stereotype that Social Democrats can’t handle money and hand over German taxes to Europe.

Ms. Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) meanwhile, is taking advantage of Mr. Gabriel’s new outspokenness to make clarify its own position on Europe. In a recent interview, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said promising more money to the EU and Greece is going in “the totally wrong direction.”

Mr. Schäuble’s ministry recently calculated that deferred Greek debt interest alone would total around €120 billion ($127 billion) by 2040, saying this implies a “de facto a new fourth” rescue package, in an unpublished paper obtained by Die Zeit.

Mr. Schulz knows these kinds of numbers aren’t popular with many Social Democratic voters.

In a 2013 book, Mr. Schulz advocated for euro-zone states jointly guaranteeing loans as a solution. But since stepping up as candidate for chancellor, he has said that the issue of eurobonds is obsolete now that there is a relief fund for ailing member states.

Mr. Schulz’s defensiveness over Europe is making it difficult, if not impossible, to launch a political attack on Ms. Merkel, an incumbent he won’t be able to beat without a real platform.

France’s upcoming presidential elections put him even more on the spot. Current front-runner Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate, has promised radical reforms. He wants to unburden companies and restructure the state budget to meet EU budget regulations for the first time.

In exchange for complying with Europe’s rules, Mr. Macron has made it clear he expects Germany to step up its solidarity. In other words, to provide more money for the EU.

It will be hard to ignore this demand if Mr. Macron finally manages to implement the reforms Germany has been calling for years. And Mr. Schulz knows Germany won’t find a more reliable partner in the European Union. Even the Financial Times has evoked the image of Mr. Schulz and Mr. Macron saving Europe together.

The crux of the vision for a stronger EU involves everyone making compromises where it hurts the most: For the Germans, it’s with their tax money, while for the French it’s their bloated state apparatus.

Mr. Schulz might be up for such a deal. Economists close to the SPD have been quietly working on a German-French initiative for the euro zone. One of its core ideas could be a joint budget that member states pay into and can use in case of economic trouble. The proposal’s appeal is that it could be launched with very small initial contributions to be slowly increased once the political outrage subsides.

Mr. Schulz will likely prefer not to discuss any of this during his campaign, lest German voters turn their backs on him. But maybe, just maybe, these voters are ahead of Mr. Schulz.

Maybe they are willing to pay up for Europe. And maybe they’re just waiting for Mr. Schulz to seriously try to win them over.

A version of this article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors:

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