Martin Schulz leaves the Brussels stage: Will Jean-Claude Juncker follow?

Top candidates for the upcoming European elections, Luxembourgian Jean-Claude Juncker (R) for European People's Party (EPP) and German Martin Schulz (L) for Party of European Socialists (PES) share a light moment before a TV duel in Hamburg, Germany, 20 May 2014. The elections on 22-25 May 2014 will produce a new European Parliament, whose 751 members will help set laws in the European Union for five years to come. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpaIt’s official. At 09.30 this morning the socialist President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, will announce publicly that he will finally respect the deal he signed with the EPP after the 2014 elections and step down from the EP Presidency when his term ends in January. Given his “special relationship” with Jean-Claude Juncker, the question is now whether the Commission President will follow him in quitting the Brussels scene.

Schulz’ statement will put an end a week of of speculation about his political future since the story first emerged that he would become German Foreign Minister, replacing the incumbent, and fellow SPD man, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is due to be elevated to President of the German Federal Republic in February.

Members of the European Parliament of all political stripes, including his own, will breathe a sigh of relief that the ever-more-autocratic Schulz is finally leaving the EU political stage. His bullying style, constantly seeking to centralise power to the detriment of smaller political groups and backbench MEPs had alienated him from his colleagues. His waves of overt cronyism, placing unsuitable and unqualified personal aides in top positions across the Parliament’s administration also riled Members.

A turning point in Schulz’ Machiavellian manoeuvres to hold onto the EP Presidency at all costs, was his enlisting of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his power-grabbing exercise earlier this year. Juncker, who owes his own job to his EPP political family for whom he was their Spitzenkandidat in the 2014 European elections, infuriated MEPs from the EPP when he came out publicly asking them to support Schulz remaining in power for a further term.

In the corridors of power in Brussels and Strasbourg, the question now on everyone’s lips is whether Juncker will survive the departure of his “Grand Coalition” partner. According to German magazine Der Spiegel, Juncker said in a closed-door meeting earlier this month: “I cannot guarantee that I will remain president of the Commission if Schulz is replaced by a conservative president”.

Juncker has denied that he plans to quit the Brussels in tandem with Schulz. However, persistent rumours about his health, coupled with heavy criticism from within the Commission about his out-of-control chief of staff and his incompetent handling of all of the recent crises, from immigration to Brexit, has led many commentators to conclude that he will be in a considerably weaker position without the pugnacious Schulz to defend him.

If Juncker does follow Schulz off the EU stage, this will present a great opportunity for fresh leadership of the EU institutions to accept part of the blame for the mishandling of these crises, and to start to listen to the real concerns of European citizens, instead of dismissing them as “populist”.