Martin Schulz in Berlin, 2015 Martin Schulz in Berlin, 2015 (Photo: Olaf Kosinsky / Wikimedia Commons)

Martin Schulz began to plunge in the polls when he chose not to openly champion for “red-red-green”. In this way, he failed to represent an alternative for Germany and Europe.

It is no coincidence that public support for Martin Schulz began to crumble 26 March, after the SPD’s defeat in the Saarland state elections. That day, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats won 40.7%, against 29.6% for the Social Democrats.

Most commentators suggested that many voters in Saarland had been put off by the possibility of a “red-red” coalition between the SPD and the radical left party, Die Linke, which scored 12.9%. The other “natural” ally of this potential coalition, the Greens, did not manage to cross the 5% threshold and remained outside of the regional parliament.

This defeat seems to have pushed Schulz to bet on his party’s ability to finish first in the election race and put aside plans to create an alternative to the grand coalition between CDU and SPD. This was the original sin that doomed his campaign.

His party fell rapidly in the polls, from in the 30s to the low 20s. The bubble burst.

“The initial enthusiasm around Martin Schulz’s candidacy was the result of two facts. He never took part in a grand coalition and he inspired a great hope,” commented SPD MEP Tiemo Wölken during a debate on the future of the French-German motor for the EU after the German elections, held at the European Parliamentary Association in Strasbourg on Wednesday 13 September.

Schulz disappointed the hope he inspired. Europe and its future should have been more at the centre of his campaign.

“Schulz disappointed the hope he inspired. Europe and its future should have been more at the centre of his campaign. Who if not the former president of the European Parliament is the most legitimate person to talk about Europe?” continued Wölken.

Schulz missed a great opportunity when he chose not to champion openly for “red-red-green” – the name normally given to a coalition between the SPD, the Linke and the Greens. This platform is the only one capable of proposing an “alternative” vision to the one of Merkel’s CDU. And this time, more than in the past, the three parties’ programmes had enough similarities to converge around a common project.

This is particularly true with respect to Europe. Indeed, all three parties bear a new consciousness of the role of Germany in Europe, as they agree that economic prosperity in their country depends directly on the situation in the other member states.

Every investment to strengthen our neighbours is an investment in our future.

“Millions of jobs in Germany are the result of the fact that things are also going well for the others in Europe… Almost 60% of our exports go to the European Union. Every investment to strengthen our neighbours is an investment in our future,” states the programme of the SPD.

This is a consideration echoed by the Linke and the Greens. “We want every member state to achieve a trade balance. This is in the interest of the German people, because growth would be fostered by salaries and internal demand and not by speculation,” claims the radical left, while the Greens propose a “project for social and economic modernisation, to end austerity and invest in the future”.

Investment is at the centre of the strategy to relaunch Europe presented by all three left-leaning parties. The Juncker plan – which aims to promote investment by bringing on board private investors – is seen as based on the wrong paradigm. A massive plan for public investment is the alternative outlined by the red-red-green parties.

In this regard, the SPD proposes the creation of an economic government for the eurozone, endowed with a budget financed by taxes on the financial markets, which “were saved with public money and have not even paid a part of the costs for this intervention”. This plan is much more ambitious than the monetary fund Merkel promised Emmanuel Macron.

Moreover, in their manifestos, the SPD, the Linke and the Greens all try to give a European dimension to two of their traditional hobbyhorses: taxation and work.

In this regard, the SPD suggests harmonising taxes on business income and wants firms to pay taxes where they collects their profits, while the Greens insist on a European minimum tax rate for company profits.

When it comes to work, then, the three parties speak with a single voice against social dumping, asking for the respect of the principle of “the same pay for the same work in the same place”. The Linke go even further and propose a European minimum wage amounting to 60% of the average of average national incomes.

In its state of the Union speech Jean-Claude Juncker proposed the creation of a European Labour Authority. This kind of initiative is urgently needed.

“It is on these issues that Europe’s credibility is at stake,” declared MEP Helmut Scholz (Die Linke), intervening at the debate of the European Parliamentary Association. “In its state of the Union speech Jean-Claude Juncker proposed the creation of a European Labour Authority. This kind of initiative is urgently needed.”

Then there is the defence dimension, where contrary to the right-leaning parties, the SPD, the Linke and the Greens, converge over their efforts to promote disarmament.

Schulz’s SPD supports the introduction of severe limits to the export of small weapons, similarly to the Greens, who openly ask for a ban on the sale of German weapons to Turkey. The Linke take an even more rigid stance, opposing strengthened UE-NATO cooperation and putting the emphasis on the civil dimension of conflict resolution.

There is enough common ground here to build a real alternative project and fill the vacuum that Merkel will leave in four years’ time, when she abandons the political scene.

However, future German centre-left leaning leaders will need more courage than Schulz. They might have no alternative. To continue to fight its traditional battles, the left has to occupy the European battleground, as the national dimension has been emptied of all meaning.

It will be an uphill battle, not least because the current configuration of the EU imposes a straitjacket on the left. As Wölken put it, “Many competences on social matters are shared between national and European authorities. Therefore, the EU can play a significant role in the matter only if treaties are changed.”

In any case, this battle is the only one worth fighting, because it is only by embracing the European dimension that the left will unite its different souls and have a chance of imposing its vision on the public discourse.

Matteo Angeli

Matteo Angeli is a journalist working for several Italian media outlets. He is based in Strasbourg, where he also works as communications manager for the European Parliamentary Association. Moreover, he is ghostwriter for a Member of the European Parliament. He covers primarily French, German, Italian and EU politics.

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