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Schulz to quit EU parliament chief post for German politics

  • Published at 06:30 pm November 24th, 2016
  • Last updated at 06:52 pm November 24th, 2016
Schulz to quit EU parliament chief post for German politics

Germany's Martin Schulz said on Thursday he would step down as head of the European Parliament and return to national politics, where analysts say he could emerge as a rival to Angela Merkel. The outspoken former bookseller from Aachen will quit after four years in office, during which he became one of the EU's most high-profile politicians and gave its assembly sorely-needed visibility.

The 60-year-old did not say if he would run for chancellor against Merkel, although he is widely expected to slot into a prime position for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is currently in coalition with her.

"I will not run as president of the European parliament for a third term next year, I will run for the German Bundestag as the head of the list of my party, the SPD, in North Rhine-Westphalia," an emotional Schulz told reporters in Brussels. "It was not an easy decision, as it is an honour to be the president of the European parliament."

Schulz is tipped in Berlin as a possible replacement to Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who now leads the party but is behind Schulz in latest polling. He is also floated as a possible replacement for Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, another top socialist who is to become Germany's next president.

Until his announcement, Schulz had been working behind the scenes to stay in the EU parliament job, angering the centre-right European People's Party which said it was promised the role as it is the largest group in the assembly.

Conservative ambitions

The conservative leader in Parliament, Manfred Weber from Merkel's Bavarian allies, said his group would choose a nominee for speaker next month. Frenchman Alain Lamassoure and Mairead McGuinness of Ireland declared their candidacies. Weber, 44, has been cited himself as Schulz's successor, a position that could raise his profile for a future career in Germany and something Schulz also used to his advantage. Weber did not, however, rule out that his group might back a "consensus candidate" from another of the mainstream, pro-EU blocs in the chamber, which include liberals and greens. That could dampen complaints of a centre-right lock on institutions while, as Weber said, maintaining a centrist front against the chamber's vocal minority of eurosceptic and extremist parties. Weber's centre-left counterpart said he would resist a conservative sweep of EU jobs, "A right-wing monopoly on the EU institutions would be unacceptable," said Italian Gianni Pittella. "Political balance must be ensured and respected." [caption id="attachment_36028" align="aligncenter" width="800"]European Parliament President Martin Schulz, left, arrives with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to greet Ukraine's President President Petro Poroshenko at the start of the 18th EU-Ukraine summit at the European Commission in Brussels on November 24, 2016.AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand Schulz announced that he will step down from his office and return to national politics in elections next year. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND European Parliament President Martin Schulz, left, arrives with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to greet Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko at the start of the 18th EU-Ukraine summit on November 24, 2016. AFP[/caption] Speculation that Schulz would return to German politics grew after Merkel's grand coalition with the Social Democrat SPD backed Schulz's party ally Steinmeier to take over in February as Germany's figurehead president. Senior SPD members see Schulz as the party's clear favourite to succeed Steinmeier. Whoever takes over the role will have an overflowing in-tray as Germany tries to unite a divided post-Brexit EU, contain an assertive Russia and work out a new relationship with Washington under Donald Trump. Schulz has said Trump's election as president will make work harder for the European Union. Opinion polls put Merkel in a very strong position to win a fourth term, despite a loss of support notably over her welcome for a million asylum seekers last year. The SPD trails badly but could end up in a new grand coalition under Merkel. Apart from Schulz, the other leading figure to be the SPD's choice for chancellor is party leader and vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. An poll this week showed Germans thought Schulz would have a somewhat stronger chance than Gabriel of ousting Merkel.

Nazi jibe

Last week Schulz even won the support of his friend Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of European Commission, who went against his own EPP party to back Schulz. Juncker, who reportedly said he could resign if the German stepped down, told reporters on Thursday "I regret it " when asked about Schulz's departure.

With Schulz's exit, the EPP group will now announce their own candidate to head the parliament. Its choice will become a near-certainty for the job. "We need to concentrate on a consensus candidate," said EPP group leader Manfred Weber of Germany, a close ally of Merkel.

He declined to say whether he would stand himself, with Irish deputy parliament chief Mairead McGuinness having also said she will stand.

Schulz, who once dreamt of being a footballer, first hit international headlines in 2003 for facing down a Nazi jibe from Italy's then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in a European Parliament debate. But Schulz will be better remembered in Brussels as a fierce back room negotiator of EU politics, who also gave the European Parliament much-needed limelight with his outspoken comments.

"Nobody can deny Schulz has been the master of the backroom stitch-up," said the pro-Brexit British MEP Syed Kamall.

A dyed-in-the-wool pro-European, Schulz, grew up just across the border from Belgium and the Netherlands in the aftermath of World War II. After finishing Catholic school, Schulz opened a bookshop in a suburb of his home town until 1994.

He began his political engagement when he was just 19 by joining the SPD. At 31, he became mayor of Wuerselen, the youngest ever to hold such a post in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of the German states, and served for 11 years.