When Martin Schulz returned to Germany to become the Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor, he probably didn’t expect it to turn out like this. Sure, an election victory was unlikely, but up against an opponent like Angela Merkel—who, while popular, was asking for a fourth term in office—the former president of the European Parliament probably thought he could give it a decent go.
And for a while, he did. Tacking left, echoing the economic populism of that other bearded 60-something, Jeremy Corbyn, Schulz was running Merkel close. At the height of the Schulz surge, he even, briefly, held a lead in the polls. Since then, he has sunk like a stone. If the current opinion polling is correct, the SPD could win its lowest percentage of the vote since reunification in 1990.
One of the reasons for the SPD’s unpopularity is its presence in a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU. As in most coalitions, it’s the junior partner that suffers most at the polls.
Yet the SPD could be tempted, even after a catastrophic defeat, to join the government once again. Merkel, who will be under pressure from her own union’s more extreme elements to move further to the right, may well see the SPD’s presence in a fresh coalition government as a chance to rule more from the centre ground. Schulz, sensing the move’s unpopularity, has promised to give his members a vote on whether the party joins a coalition.
But he should go further. For the good of his nation and his continent, Schulz must say no.
If the SPD goes into government, the party in third place will become the official opposition. And if the polls are right, that means the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD): party that is supported by neo-Nazis and calls the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” will have a formal, constitutional role. For this to happen in Germany would be a shock felt not only there but across Europe and the world.
It would also be a real shot in the arm for a European far-right movement that has performed worse over the past 12 months than many, including they, expected.In Austria they lost the presidential election, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ surge turned into a damp squib, while in the French presidential election Marine Le Pen was beaten two to one by Emmanuel Macron. Meanwhile, in the UK, Ukip’s support slumped to just 2 per cent in June’s general election.
Schulz may have dreamt of becoming the leader of Europe’s most powerful economy. But his new mission, to keep out the far-right, is no less urgent.