Martin Schulz likes to see himself as a fighter.
“I’m a footballer,” the centre-left German Social Democrats’ (SPD) leader is fond of saying. If he’s not saying that, he’s usually demonstrating his boxing skills at campaign stops.
But the 61-year-old Schulz will need to put up the fight of his life if he is to have any chance of toppling Germany’s conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel, who enjoys a commanding lead in opinion polls ahead of the September 24 election.
“You never give up and never give up in the fight for the things you believe in,” EU Council President Donald Tusk once told Schulz.
A former footballer, town mayor, reformed alcoholic and bookshop owner, Schulz is something of a newcomer on the national German political stage.
Married with two children, he spent 22 years in the European Parliament, including five years as president of the Strasbourg-based assembly and mastering every major European language.
Surprisingly, in a nation which has the highest number of tertiary students in Europe, Schulz never completed high school.
After a year of unemployment, he became a bookshop owner in the town where he was born, Wuerselen, in North Rhine Westphalia, the nation’s biggest state and a traditional SPD stronghold.
Indeed, politics was always part of life for the man often dubbed as Mister Europe.
Schulz’s father was a police officer and a rock solid SPD supporter. His mother was active in Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.
By 19, he had become an active SPD member before entering regional politics, eventually rising through the ranks of local government to become Wuerselen’s mayor at age 31 – North Rhine Westphalia’s youngest ever mayor at the time.
A strong public speaker, Schulz’s aim is to inject more emotion into political life.
“Anyone in politics who is not able to arouse emotions is in the wrong place,” Schulz once said.
In January, Schulz rose to his party’s highest office as SPD chief and its chancellor candidate for the September 24 election.
As a new face on a stage of old actors, his nomination initially prompted a surge in SPD support in opinion polls.
It was a measure of the SPD’s hopes that Schulz might end Merkel’s 12-year rule that he was voted party chief in March with 100 per cent backing.
But, by then, the “Schulz train,” as the media dubbed the SPD leader’s bid for chancellor, seemed to be already running out of steam, with support for the party slumping.
At about 24 per cent, SPD support now stands below the 25.5 per cent it achieved in the last election, in 2013.
But Schulz is used to tough fights. At age 24, he was battling alcoholism after an injury brought to an end the dreams of a football career.
“I drank everything I could get,” Schulz said in an interview. The SPD chief has not drunk alcohol for about 37 years.
A staunch European, he has regularly defended the European Union over the years as being the best defence against the ghosts that haunted the region during the 20th century – racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. More recently, he joined the fight against populism in Europe.