ROME – European Socialists on Saturday anointed Martin Schulz as their candidate for European Commission president, launching their campaign for elections in May with calls to fight unemployment and rising populism.
Delegates at a congress of the Party of European Socialists in Rome voted 368 in favor of Schulz’s candidacy, with two ballots against and 34 abstentions.
“My first priority as European Commission president will be jobs, good jobs,” Schulz, who is currently European Parliament speaker, said after the vote. “I want to reduce the gap between rich and poor and between big countries and small countries,” he said. “We have lost optimism about out future. I want to put fairness back at the heart of our policies.”
The former bookseller from Aachen in Germany, who once dreamed of being a soccer player, is best known for once facing down a Nazi jibe from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a European Parliament debate.
Friends and foes alike agree on one thing when it comes to the stockily built, bearded 58-year-old: Schulz is a man of character and determination. Outgoing and warm but tough too, Schulz does not mince his words, a charge sometimes made against current President Jose Manuel Barroso.
A dyed-in-the-wool pro-European, Schulz grew up just across the border from Belgium and the Netherlands. After finishing Catholic school, Schulz opened a bookshop in a suburb of his hometown until 1994.
He began his political engagement when he was just 19 by joining Germany’s SPD Social Democrat party.
At 31, he became mayor of Wuerselen, the youngest ever to hold such a post in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of the German states, and served for 11 years.
He was elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and his career in Brussels began to take off, with him becoming head of the SPD group of European lawmakers in 2000.
During a parliament debate in 2003, Schulz referred to “the virus of conflict of interests” in politics — a barely veiled swipe at billionaire tycoon turned politician Berlusconi, provoking an infamous retort.
“Mr. Schulz, I know a producer in Italy who is making a film about the Nazi concentration camps. I could see you in the role of a capo — you would be perfect,” Berlusconi said.
Schulz refused to respond in kind. “My respect for the victims of the Nazis forbids me to respond,” he said, immediately deflating Berlusconi’s barb and winning plaudits for his restraint on such a sensitive issue.
In 2012 Schulz became speaker of the European Parliament, putting him on a par with Barroso and the head of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuym in EU ranking.
In his high-profile role as speaker, Schulz has traveled widely and brought in heads of state and other political leaders to address parliament, pushing for MEPs to have more say in running Europe.
‘Populist vote rising’
For the first time this year after the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon, member states will have to take into account the result of the European elections on May 25 when they pick a president for the European Commission.
“I want to become the first commission president who is not the result of a backroom deal,” Schulz said.
Unlike the European People’s Party conservative group, which has still not settled on a candidate, the Party of European Socialists (PES) chose Schulz months ago, and Saturday’s congress only formalized the decision.
The PES brings together social democrats from the 28 EU member states, and its manifesto adopted on Saturday accused the right-wing majority in the current European Parliament of creating “a Europe of fear and austerity.”
The socialists said their program “will bring back job creation, a productive economy, a sense of community and respect for people,” calling the struggle against unemployment “our first and main priority.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, at 39 the youngest European Union leader, was joined at the congress along with social democratic leaders from Austria, Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, Malta and Romania.
“Europe cannot go on like this. We see the populist vote rising everywhere,” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters.
In an address to the congress, he added, “We have to stop the failure of the conservatives from prompting disillusionment in Europe.”