Germany’s Martin Schulz looks to woo ‘people who keep the lights on’

New SPD leader promises to restore ‘fairness’ as he gets ready to take on Merkel

Martin Schulz: The imminent leader of Germany’s Social Democrats favours a “liberal but not stupid” approach to refugees and dismisses Donald Trump as “outrageous and dangerous”. Photograph: Steffi Loos/Getty Images

Martin Schulz: The imminent leader of Germany’s Social Democrats favours a “liberal but not stupid” approach to refugees and dismisses Donald Trump as “outrageous and dangerous”. Photograph: Steffi Loos/Getty Images

 

Germany’s Social Democrat (SPD) leader-elect has launched his bid to topple chancellor Angela Merkel by appealing to “the people who keep the lights on in this country”.

In an emotional address in Berlin, Martin Schulz, an MEP for 20 years in Brussels, implied that Dr Merkel was out of touch after 12 years as chancellor.

“My understanding of the chancellor is someone who doesn’t just have understanding but deep empathy for people’s daily problems,” he said. “Otherwise her or she is in the wrong job.”

Ahead of his election as party leader next month, Mr Schulz promised to restore a sense of fairness to German life by ending neo-liberal economic policies to divert Germany’s budget surplus into crumbling schools, roads and policing.

And, in a swipe at finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, he said Germany urgently needed an SPD finance minister to push tax policy that doesn’t “inevitability help the rich” or benefit multinationals above small business.

Pre-empting critics who would say that he has little formal education and national political experience limited to 12 years as mayor in Würselen, near Aachen, Mr Schulz said this was not a disadvantage.

“It’s [a background] I share with the majority of people in this country,” he said. “In the end, every problem lands in the town halls and local councils.”

13-point gap

To oust Dr Merkel in September’s federal election, Mr Schulz either has to close the 13-point gap with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or gain enough ground to end the current CDU-SPD grand coalition in favour of an alliance with Greens, Left Party or liberal Free Democrats.

Mr Schulz has declined to rule in or out of any coalition, except with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is 13 per cent in polls and rising. He described the AfD as a “disgrace” for Germany and his party as Germany’s best defence against radicalised politics.

By emphasising his provincial roots, Mr Schulz hopes to attract voters whose frustration with the Berlin establishment is growing, but not yet great enough to considering backing the AfD.

Acknowledging growing public concerns over Dr Merkel’s liberal refugee policy, Mr Schulz said he favoured a “liberal but not stupid” approach, tackling criminal asylum seekers without “giving up our justice system”.

On foreign policy, he dismissed US president Donald Trump as “outrageous and dangerous” and declined to be drawn on whether he favoured loosening EU sanctions on Russia.