Martin Schulz: Who is the man who could topple Angela Merkel?

Arch-Europhile could give Britain the 'hardest Brexit possible' if he becomes German chancellor in September

Martin Schulz SPD Leader
(Image credit: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty)

Angela Merkel will face the most serious challenge to her 12 years as German chancellor when the country goes to the polls in September.

She will be up against Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament who yesterday was named the new leader of Germany's left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) after winning all 605 delegate votes – a "record result", says The Guardian.

But who is Martin Schulz and can he win on 24 September?

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What is his background?

After a possible career in football was curtailed by injury problems, Schulz became an alcoholic, a part of his life that he speaks of with frankness.

"I had lost my direction in life and my life was about to go off course," he told party members on Sunday. "But then, I got a second chance thanks to the [SPD youth organisation] Jusos in my hometown."

"Now, I am standing here in front of you - a man from Wurselen, my home."

Schulz's home town seems to have guided his political perspective. Wurselen sits close to Germany's borders with Belgium and the Netherlands and the politician has relatives in both countries, something the Washington Post says has shaped him into "a natural European".

He became an MEP in 1994 and rose through the ranks to become president of the European Parliament in 2012, which the Daily Telegraph partially credits to his high-profile spat with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi regarding conflicts of interest.

He stepped down from his European parliamentary role this year to run for the SPD candidacy.

What are his views?

Schulz is a fervent Europhile and the EU's "fiercest champion", says the Daily Telegraph.

Reports say he wants to reinstate the SPD's centre-left ideology in order to win back voters who have drifted off to Die Linke (the Left Party) and the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AFD), who he branded a "disgrace" yesterday.

His promises include introducing family-friendly tax and working hours to Germany, along with promising to close the "intolerable" gender pay gap and legalise gay marriage.

Addressing party delegates this weekend, Schulz also took a shot at the rise of right-wing populism both at home and abroad. With him in power, "there will be no Europe bashing", he said, before taking aim at President Donald Trump.

"If there's one thing to learn from Trump's campaign it is that mocking people, working with fake news and the general condemnation of entire groups of people has no place in Germany," he said.

What would a Schulz win mean for the UK and Brexit?

Schulz, one of the harshest high-profile critics of Brexit, spoke out against the UK's referendum last year, accusing David Cameron of "taking a whole continent hostage for a party's internal struggle".

He also said Brexit would lead to a "mutual humiliation" of both Britain and the EU and that he would push for "the hardest Brexit possible" if MEPs were excluded from negotiations.

Can he win?

A poll on Sunday suggested Schulz and Merkel are neck-and-neck, with the Chancellor's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union alliance having 33 per cent support and the SPD on 32 per cent.

"If the SPD were to join forces with the far-left Die Linke, which has 8 per cent, and the Greens, also on 8 per cent, it would have enough to form a coalition government," says the Guardian.

However, the Daily Telegraph called the result "something of an outlier" and said that "a rival poll this week found Mr Schulz well behind, on 25 per cent to Mrs Merkel’s 40 per cent".

The Washington Post was also cautious. "Merkel's last SPD opponent, Peer Steinbruck, enjoyed similarly high popular support when he was nominated in 2012," it said. "He is now a former politician."

What is the key election issue?

Germany's chancellorship may be won or lost on the issue of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Merkel's policy on immigration, which has seen more than one million people enter the country since 2015, has been a topic of great controversy in the country over the past two years.

The Boston Globe says the "right-wing populist movements in some [EU] member countries blame the union for immigration and for what they perceive as the loss of national sovereignty".

Merkel's policy could see her popularity fall further after dramatic gains by the anti-refugee AFD in regional elections in September 2016, it adds.

However, Schulz's stance is unlikely to win over any voters from the AFD. Bloomberg says he is "perhaps even more liberal on refugees than Merkel", while in an interview with Der Spiegel this month, the politician said he thought it "good that Germany fulfilled its humanitarian commitments in the refugee issue".

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