Martin Schulz exits German coalition in bid to stave off revolt

Justin Huggler
Mr Schulz said he had decided to renounce office over fears the row could lead SPD members to reject the coalition deal - AFP

Angela Merkel’s new coalition government was thrown into disarray before it has even taken office on Friday as the leader of her main partner announced he would not take up his cabinet post.

Martin Schulz, leader of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was named as foreign minster on Wednesday after agreeing a coalition deal with Mrs Merkel four months since the election.

But just 48 hours later he dramatically announced he was withdrawing his candidacy and would not serve in the government, after party members reportedly lost faith in him. 

The deal to form a coalition is expected to go ahead without him, although it still has to be approved by SPD members in a postal vote.

The shock announcement came with Mr Schulz facing a revolt from party members incensed at his decision to become foreign minister despite pledging never to serve under Mrs Merkel.

Profile | Martin Schulz

He said he had decided to renounce office over fears the row could lead SPD members to reject the coalition deal.

But sources close to the party said he was forced into the climbdown after being given an ultimatum by the rest of the party leadership.

“I believe a successful vote may be at risk from the discussions about me,” Mr Schulz said in a statement. “I am therefore renouncing my intention of joining the government and sincerely hope this will end the debate over personality within the SPD. 

“We all go into politics for the people in this country. That means the interests of the party have to come before my personal ambitions.”

Mr Schulz, a former Europearn parliament president, was briefly talked of as Germany’s next chancellor when he returned from Brussels to enter national politics.

He was elected SPD leader with 100 per cent support in 2016 and the country was gripped by “Schulzmania” in the early part of last year. But he led the party to its worst ever result in September’s election.

The winners and losers of the German election: Vote swings

His political career is now almost certainly over. He announced he was stepping down as SPD leader on Wednesday in a bid to fend off calls for him to focus on rebuilding the party instead of seeking ministerial office.

But that gamble appears to have backfired, with his critics accusing him of using the party leadership as his personal “trampoline” to secure a “plum government post”.

His downfall comes despite negotiating a coalition deal widely regarded as very good for the SPD, after Mrs Merkel made heavy concessions and the party took control of the powerful finance ministry.

But sources close to the talks say the party’s success was largely down to other negotiators and that Mr Schulz was a weak link.

He was also facing anger over his treatment of Sigmar Gabriel, the current foreign minister and Germany’s most popular politician, who had looked set to be forced out of government by Mr Schulz’s decision to take the job.

The two men are former friends and Mr Gabriel has alleged they made a deal in 2016 under which he would get to stay on as foreign minister in return for stepping aside as party leader to make way for Mr Schulz.

“What's left is regret at how little respect there is in the SPD in our dealings with one another, and how little someone's word counts for,” Mr Gabriel told German television in an outspoken attack on his former friend.

“I enjoyed taking on the office of foreign minister, and in the eyes of the public I apparently did a good and successful job. I regret that it's clear the public's esteem for my work means absolutely nothing to the SPD leadership.”

But in the end it appears it was the party leadership’s fears that the row over Mr Schulz could lose them the vote on the coalition deal that finished him off. Michael Groschek, the head of the party’s biggest regional association, is said to have been given the task of telling Mr Schulz he had to go.

A committed EU federalist who recently called for a “United States of Europe”, as German foreign minister he was expected to push for faster and deeper integration.

It remains to be seen whether the SPD will continue to pursue that agenda without him. It was on Friday who the party will nominate to serve as foreign minister in his place, although there were calls for Mr Gabriel to continue in the post.

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