BRUSSELS, Belgium – Martin Schulz may not be a household name even in his native Germany, but on Tuesday the Social Democratic politician was elected to one of the highest-profile jobs in the European Union’s institutions.
Members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly for Schulz as president of the EU’s elected assembly.
A trade-off between the Socialists and the main center-right faction meant Schulz won 387 of the 699 votes cast, more than the combined total of his two rivals – both British members from the Liberal and Conservative groups.
Known for his no-nonsense and sometimes-abrasive style, Schulz immediately waded into the EU’s two most pressing issues.
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He demanded a seat for the parliament alongside government leaders in negotiations alongside government leaders to find a way out of the euro zone crisis and agreed to allow Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to address the assembly on Wednesday. Orban faces widespread international condemnation for his economic polices and new laws which critics see as anti-democratic.
In his opening speech, Schulz acknowledged the grave crisis facing the EU. “For the first time since it was founded, the failure of the European Union is a realistic possibility,” he told the parliament in Strasbourg, France. “For months now the Union has been stumbling from one crisis summit to another.”
He warned European leaders they would face widespread unrest if they failed to heed the voice of the people in dealing with the economic crisis.
Schulz briefly hit world headlines in 2003 when then Italian Prime Minister Silivo Berlusconi compared the German lawmaker to a Nazi concentration camp guard after Schulz heckled Berlusconi during a parliament debate.
Schulz’s most pressing battle may be to improve the image of the institution he now leads.
Set up as the EU’s only directly-elected body in 1979, the European Parliament has seen its powers growing steadily over the years. Once little more than a highly-paid talking-shop, it now has wide powers to modify and block European legislation. But as its powers have increased, public support has declined.
Turnout in the last election in 2009 was just 42 percent across the 27 EU nations compared to 63 percent in 1979. Barely one-third of Brits and around 20 percent of Slovaks and Lithuanians turned out to vote.
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For many, the parliament is seen as distant, ineffectual and having little impact on day-to-day life. Reports of European lawmakers taking bribes or cheating on expenses claims have further damaged its image. The fact that the Parliament splits its time between Brussels and Strasbourg, at great expense to taxpayers, has not helped.
“We are a powerful parliament with a wrong image,” Schulz acknowledged.