Why did Martin Schulz call for the United States of Europe?

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MARTIN SCHULZ baffled many, especially outside Germany, with his call yesterday for a United States of Europe by 2025. The leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was addressing a conference his party from a weak position, after its worst electoral result (20.5%) in post-war history and ahead of a crucial vote of delegates on whether to talk to the centre-right alliance CDU/CSU about another grand coalition. Why is this, now? What was he up to?

It helps to revisit a scene from his election campaign, recorded by Markus Feldenkirchen from Der Spiegel. It was June. The initial surge in support for the SPD after Mr Schulz emerged as its chancellor candidate earlier this year – the “Schulz hype” – had subsided. How do you get that energy back? At a meeting at SPD headquarters, Mr. Schulz asked to go big in his speech to the party’s pre-election conference. It would be realistic, “visual” even. He spoke from the heart as a true European and called for a United States of Europe. He would compare this enthusiasm with the vague, tactful innocence of Angela Merkel.

Several days later his team came back with a version of the speech that had been cut from the bold parts, including a call for a United States of Europe. They told Mr Schulz who was unhappy that the voters, according to the party’s research, did not want conflict. The ensuing SPD conference was a Merkel-ishly anodyne affair, one of many moments in which the former president of the European Parliament seemed unable to speak in his own voice, amended by the Chancellor.s popular and declined with caution. He barely mentioned the subject on which he is most authoritative and passionate: the calling of the EU and Germany within it.

At the election the SPD lost votes to parties of all political stripes. But it was a common criticism among voters that they didn’t seem to know what it was like. So the numerology of the “Jamaica” coalition product of the CDU / CSU, the Free Democrats and the pro-business Greens was able to make it a blessed comfort; the Social Democrats immediately announced that they would return to challenge, to rebuild and rediscover their identity.

But the collapse of the Jamaica talks on November 19 forced the party – under great pressure to provide a stable government for Europe’s largest economy – to consider a third round of coalition with Mrs Merkel. Mr Schulz was among the leaders of the SPD most reluctant to take this step, fearing that another four years of government punishment would end the party as a major force in German politics. Weakened, reluctant and facing an anti-coalition revolt from his partys branch of youth, he needed a story to tell about this face bolt; such a reason that the SPD could justify returning to government on new terms; a big project around which the party could build a cordon and call: this is us.

Such was the situation, yesterday, in which Mr. Schulz revived the speech he had been encouraged not to give this summer: the speech making his ‘ an idealistic social-democratic case for a federal Europe. The leader of the SPD started with an apology for the election result and thus upset him Die Welt compare it to a “lachrymose therapy session”. Then came the redemption phase: “People, Europe is our life insurance! This is our only chance to keep up with the other great regions of the world.” Only with a federal Europe, Mr Schulz said in a passage aimed squarely at the left wing of the SPD coalition, could Germany and its neighbors face common challenges such as tax evasion, abuse corporate and migration crisis: “the continent cannot afford four more years of Germany’s European policy on Schäuble” (a reference to Wolfgang Schäuble, Mrs Merkel’s former finance minister).

Emmanuel Macron looked great. Mr. Schulz highlighted the French president’s commitment to the European civil society treaty. His speech about a federal moment by 2025 reflected Mr Macron’s timetable (the president wants to achieve several of his integration proposals by 2024). His strange – and indeed illegal – request that countries that do not ratify a new constitution be expelled from the EU, it seems, was a famous attempt at his ideas to align with Mr. Macron’s vision of a multi-speed Europe, with a heart that moves faster. towards the integration of the other parts.

There were two main audiences. The first, the main one, was the party – and especially the representatives in the hall. Mr. Schulz was telling them something like this: “You and I, comrades, we are not the fake technicians in the public imagination but the ideals. We have a vision of how the world could be different, a big idea. And it follows from this that we will stand up to CDU/CSU as we have not done before; we will do a grand coalition differently next time.” It worked. Delegates voted around 2:1 for exploratory and “open” (ie coalition-based) talks with Mrs Merkel and 82% of them voted for Mr Schulz to be leader, albeit from a table of one .

The second audience was the type of voter the SPD needs to hit the mid-20s vote segment needed to show it’s still in the game (if not the 30-40% whose chancellor enters). That voter, the lowest-hanging fruit, is the kind of well-educated urbanite, perhaps in the public sector that Mr Schulz should have won easily but abandoned the SPD for Mrs Merkel’s liberal CDU , the Greens or the left in the September election. . One lesser-known achievement of his speech was that Alexander Dobrindt, the CSU’s transport minister and the kind of right-wing politician that a particularly self-confident SPD should dismiss, attacked Mr Schulz’s sweeping proposal in praise of his “European Radical”.

But one speech does not repeat. It is covered in today’s German newspapers, but without much fanfare. Yesterday Mrs Merkel dismissed Mr Schulz’s speech about a federal Europe, saying the EU should focus on developing its practical “ability to act”, not long-term visions -time. Judging by his lackluster election campaign Mr Schulz has a habit of moving smoothly between topics without prosecuting long enough to make an impact and he has a habit of letting his rhetoric get well ahead of the material (his lofty speech about rewriting Germany’s social contract. didn’t come out in his party’s moderate social justice proposals, for example). Anyone in the German political establishment can speak nice words and big ideas about Europe and many have been doing that in recent weeks. Less offers a lot of detail.

As long as Mr. Schulz has found a new way to separate himself from his party, then – and he is not overcoming other options – he has to stick to it. This is not to say that it has to go on about the United States of Europe; at least this will not be on the table in his discussions with Mrs. Merkel, even as an abstract goal. But the SPD cannot expect the theme of “Europe” to give it any new political cover in a grand coalition without at least moderately ambitious and tough proposals.

What will the Europe of Schulz’s dream look like in the next three or four years? The SPD say they agree with Mr Macron on the need for a eurozone finance minister, but with what powers and on what legislative basis? He talks strangely about new investments, but how much and what funding? Where does he stand on the European Commission’s proposals such as a “foundation fund” for troubled member economies? Does the SPD want a contract change? How would he end the banking union? Is he willing to challenge the anti-burden-sharing rhetoric of the FDP and the likes of Mr. Schäuble? Will he try to sway public opinion in Germany – at best on the subject of eurozone reform – by confronting voters with hard but honest facts about European expectations for the country ? Will he admit to them that a more integrated and self-sufficient Europe needs more German defense and security roles? Will it make the SPD’s control of the finance ministry a red line in the grand negotiations of the new coalition?

The presence or absence of big answers to these questions, much more than any big talk about European federation, is the measure by which the SPD’s renaissance as a party of German Europeanism should and will be judged.

He has not made the job easy for himself. If the party had done much to differentiate between the CDU/CSU on Europe in their two previous coalitions with Mrs. Merkel, or if they had done anything more than reference to the subject in their summer election campaign, it would be much stronger. position now to advance this cause. The SPD has created an unthinkable situation for itself. He has to make the most of it.

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