Shock news! Hold the (virtual) front page! Martin Schulz, arch bogeyman of every British Brexiteer – and even a few Remainers – is leaving the EU. No, Schulz hasn’t renounced his support for ‘ever closer’ European Union. Rather, he’s stepping down as President of the European Parliament to stand as an MP for the SPD, Germany’s Social Democrats. Why should British voters care? Because Schulz has been widely tipped as a potential leader of the SPD, the only party with a real chance of beating Angela Merkel’s CDU in next year’s Bundestag elections. And the winner of that election will steer EU policy throughout the Brexit process, and beyond.
Second only to Jean-Claude Juncker, Schulz is the Eurocrat Eurosceptics love to loathe. Yet ironically, his robust defence of the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ (goods, services, capital and people) puts him on the same side of the argument as his fiercest British foes. The paradox of Brexit, as far as EU-UK negotiations are concerned, is that the most ardent British Europhobes and the most ardent Continental Europhiles (like Schulz) are actually in broad agreement. They both want a hard Brexit – no single market access without freedom of movement (and vice versa). You may find this hard to stomach, but if you’re a hard Brexiteer, Martin Schulz is your best friend.
So is Schulz’s departure from the European Parliament a sign of his waning influence? Far from it. His return to German politics will give him an even stronger voice in the great Brexit debate. Schulz’s SPD are currently becalmed on 22 per cent, ten per cent behind Merkel’s CDU. Polls suggest Schulz would win more votes than the current SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, who is Merkel’s Economics Minister (and vice chancellor) in her ‘grand coalition’ of CDU and SPD.