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Martin Schulz: 'I want to be way up top'

He makes no mistake that he wants to be the top dog in the European Union. But is he not actually an underdog? DW takes a look at the life of the Socialists and Social Democrats' front-runner: Martin Schulz.

If nothing else, Martin Schulz is one of those people who can tell you with utter conviction what their favorite color is: "Red. It's the color red. I belong to the 'Reds.' That is my life."

For over three decades, Schulz has been active in the "Reds" - as Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) are known - on many levels. First, as a mayor in his home town of Würselen. Then, as a leading Socialist member of the European Parliament. And, finally, as that parliament's president - and now as candidate for the EU Commission presidency at elections this week.

He does not mince words or hide his ambition: "We need people with courage. And if you'll allow me, I'll be very clear. There's one sitting in front of you right now," Schulz said during a recent talk show on German public TV.

Winning back trust

He says he strives to serve everyday people - those skeptical of the downright frightening complexity of the European apparatus: "One of the main recurring gripes I hear, no matter where I am in the bloc, is that the EU makes its presence felt everywhere, but that the people have no influence over it." This is precisely what Martin Schulz has set out to change, and that's why he's hoping to become the president of the Commission - the basis of European executive and administrative action in Brussels.

From left: Schulz, van Rompuy, Merkel, Hollande

Martin Schulz has made it his goal to be on a level with other European leaders

"What can be done better on a regional or local level? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves in order to give responsibility back to the people. Ultimately that will win back their trust," said Schulz in an interview with DW.

Not everyone in Brussels is a fan of his brashness. He is wont to come across harsh and doesn't shy away from using very direct language with opponents. With his own employees, he's been known to say things like: "You're all fired!" This is all in jest, he insists, but is quick to admit his faults - that he can be too sure of himself at times and that he can want too much, too quick.

Schulz was thrown onto a path of self-introspection at an early stage of his adult life. His dreams of becoming a professional soccer player were dashed at the age of 24 when he injured his knee. Depressed and disillusioned, he turned to alcohol for solace. At that point, down and out and wanting to kill himself, his brother Erwin, a physician, got him back on track.

Martin Schulz plays soccer

Schulz doesn't shy from speaking publicly about past problems with alcohol

His first move was to open a bookstore. Although he never attended university, Schulz was a voracious reader (even today, he is often reading three books at the same time). He soon entered the world of politics and started a career with the SPD.

European from birth

The European project was essentially part of Schulz's upbringing. Growing up not far from where the borders of France, Germany and Belgium meet, his relatives were literally strewn across countries. During World War I, those relatives would have been ordered to shoot at one another, an insane situation that was done away with by the unity that ensued after World War II - something Schulz does not hesitate to bring up: "As a postwar generation, we often forget what we have inherited. I have been able to live a life of peace and opportunity, one my own parents would have never dared to dream of. And yet, today, we have lost sight of this."

Schulz is irritated that Europe and the EU have a negative reputation among European voters. However, his tone has softened somewhat since German elections last fall, when his SPD won enough votes to get back into government with Merkel's conservatives. He knows well that he will need the German government's backing if he wants to get the EU's top job.

He is a bit proud that he has the chancellor's number saved in his mobile phone. And in response to the occasional snub in Brussels that he's unfit to head the commission because he hasn't led any national government himself, he says: "Sure, I was mayor of a small city. But I dealt first-hand with the concerns of the people on a daily basis. I believe that what Brussels needs now is somebody up top who knows these concerns and takes them seriously."

Family man

When Schulz is on the road with his campaign team, he carries with him a plastic animal, which he sometimes pulls out and sets on his armrest. "This is my hippopotamus, my talisman. My daughter gave this to me as a gift when she was six years old. It's my lucky hippo." His two daughters and wife are very dear to him; he even contends that text messages from his wife are more important than the ones he occasionally receives from the German chancellor.

Despite the exhausting election campaign Schulz has been on over the past few months, it's safe to assume that many voters don't know who he is. Indeed, outside the proverbial Brussels bubble, he is relatively unknown - yet he is perhaps more widely known than his opponent, Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg.

Silvio Berlusconi

The former Italian prime minister is somewhat known for his slips of tongue

Ironically, one of Schulz's most popular moments came on the heels of an absurd statement made by then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who in 2007 told him: "In Italy, they are making a movie on Nazi concentration camps. I will propose you for the role of capo," or chief.

Back then, the scandal catapulted the all-but-unknown MEP onto news programs and headlines throughout Europe. With the dust now settled, Schulz is even a bit grateful to Berlusconi for the unintended media spotlight, but he has never reconciled with him. When asked why, Schulz remarked: "I can be stubborn."

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