Martin Schulz
Martin Schulz

MUNICH — MunichNOW Politics — Since deciding not to rerun for President of the European Parliament in November 2016 to focus on his domestic campaign, Martin Schultz of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has emerged as the biggest threat to Angela Merkel’s 12-year reign as Chancellor of Germany. After January’s announcement that he would be the SDP candidate for Chancellor, a snap opinion poll had him tied with Mrs. Merkel at 41% support.

Having been born in the West Rhineland village of Hehlrath, near the Dutch and Belgian borders, in 1955, Mr. Schultz endured a rather tumultuous early life. His dream of becoming a professional footballer was ended by a severe knee injury; he dropped out of school without completing his exams and suffered from depression and alcoholism.

Martin Schulz2
Martin Schulz as mayor of Würsele — munichFOTO

He successfully overcame his troubles and opened his own bookstore in 1982, for which he had trained in his early 20s. By that time he was already and active member of the SDP, and in 1987 he became mayor of Würsele, a position he held until 1998.

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Having become a Member of the European Parliament in 1994, Mr. Schultz shot to public prominence in 2003 when he criticised Silvio Berlusconi, suggesting the then Italian Prime Minister’s media empire was a conflict of interest. Mr. Berlusconi’s response that Mr. Schultz should play a Nazi guard in a film sparked outrage throughout Europe. In 2012 Mr. Schultz was voted President of the European Parliament, a post he held until February of this year.

Angela Merkel and her main opponent, Martin Schulz -- munichFOTO
Angela Merkel and her main opponent, Martin Schulz — munichFOTO

His decision not to run for a third term, which ended a 23 year career in European politics, came as a surprise to many. It was based on his belief that, after 12 years under the leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany needs a fresh approach to politics. Mr. Schultz has been critical of Mrs. Merkel’s handling of President Trump, who wants NATO countries to spend 2% of their GDP on the military. In Germany that would be a figure of €30 billion. As well as opposing an increase in military spending, Mr. Schultz wants the estimates 20 US nuclear warheads stored in eastern Germany to be removed.

Schulz's election as leader of the SPD spawned the "MEGA" meme ("Make Europe Great Again"), riffing on President Donald Trump's campaign slogan.
Schulz’s election as leader of the SPD spawned the “MEGA” meme (“Make Europe Great Again”), riffing on President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

Mr. Schultz is a stout Europhile and has been highly critical of Britain and the EU referendum, claiming David Cameron’s decision to hold it “took a whole continent hostage.” He is keen to ensure the integrity of the EU during the Brexit and beyond, and would be in no mood to give Britain an easy ride. While Mrs. Merkel is known for her reserved approach and cautious language, the opposite can be said of Mr. Schultz’s, who speaks in a strong and emotive manner.Keep CalmWith the election less than a month away, the question is whether Mr. Schultz can pose a serious threat to Mrs. Merkel. The opinion poll that had him level with the CDU leader in November 2016 has since been revealed as the exception rather than the rule, with more recent polls suggesting he trails the incumbent leader by around 15 points. Perhaps the continuation of the current ‘grand coalition’ is the most realistic way for the SDP to maintain a level of power.

To displace Mrs. Merkel completely the Mr.Schultz would, in all likelihood, need his party and both Die Grüne Party and Die Linke to win enough votes for a three-way coalition. Of course, one month is a long time in politics, so Mr. Schultz will not be admitting defeat until the last vote is counted.