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Mr President, the candidate?

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It’s official: Martin Schulz, the current President of the European Parliament, is the only nominee to be the common candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES) at the next European Parliament elections. A year from now, he could be President of the European Commission.

But what about his current job?

As the Parliament has told us in its awareness-raising campaign, ‘this time it’s different’. We have never had ‘common candidates’ before, with (the European political parties hope) a Europe-wide profile.

How does Martin Schulz handle being the President of the Parliament and a candidate to be Commission President?

Presidents of the Parliament have campaigned in elections before, but usually to be returned as an MEP. Schulz will stand as an MEP, and is certain to be returned. But being a ‘common candidate’ is a different issue.

So how does Martin Schulz handle being the current President of the Parliament and a candidate to be President of the Commission?

Other political systems provide some pointers. In the United States, there are no qualms about a Speaker of the House of Representatives campaigning in a political way, and speakers and presidents of national parliaments in across Europe often stand for re-election bearing the colours of their party.

In the European Parliament, the President’s role has traditionally been fairly neutral: representing the institution in a ceremonial way, ensuring fairness in debates, and defending the legitimate rights of each MEP (indeed, it will be interesting to see how members of other groups react to the new ‘President-Candidate’).

But, as one Parliament official has pointed out, the current President is already more ‘political’ than his predecessors. He leads a strong Parliament position – on issues such as the EU’s long-term budget (the Multiannual Financial Framework) – in a style similar to the US House Speaker, even though his Socialists & Democrats Group is not the largest faction.

The current President is already more ‘political’ than his predecessors

Then there are more mundane – but still important – considerations.

Martin Schulz’s Twitter account has more than 55,000 followers. But are they following Martin Schulz the German Social Democrat MEP and candidate for the Commission presidency, or the President of the European Parliament? To what extent can or will Schulz use this platform in the campaign? Schulz joined Twitter in 2008, long before he became President of the Parliament, although his following has taken off in his current role.

With regard to the campaign, Ruairi Quinn, the Irish education minister, who serves as the PES Treasurer, promised full transparency of funding, and no question of blurred lines between the role of PES candidate and President of the Parliament.

Schulz, meanwhile, confirmed that he will remain as President – at the moment, he is currently ‘a-candidate-but-not-a-candidate’, with official confirmation coming only at the end of February, when the PES holds its congress in Rome. A rival Socialist candidate may appear, although this seems unlikely.

Schulz may seek to avoid situations that could be interpreted as him using his official platform to support his (near-certain) candidacy

In any case, it will also be hard for him to really campaign for the Commission job without official opponents from other parties: the EPP candidate will not be known until a week after Schulz’s likely approval, and the Liberal and Green candidates are set to be agreed in February.

However, in the meantime – as the ‘candidate-designate’ – Schulz may seek to avoid situations that could be interpreted as him using his official platform to support his (near-certain) candidacy. He is unlikely to do anything to upset his opponents too much, knowing that to gain a qualified majority in the European Council for his nomination, and a majority of all MEPs for his election, he needs to reach across the political divide.

These questions, like many others, will have to be resolved in some way as Europe heads down an unclear institutional path over the next twelve months. No doubt, as usual, new precedents will be set as Europe moves forward, tenative step by tentative step.

A version of this article first appeared on the Europe Decides website / Image: CC BY-SA-3.0 Olaf Kosinsky