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Elections

Schulz aims for the top in EU election

The European Socialists have launched their campaign for the European election in late May, with Germany's Martin Schulz as their top candidate. His goal: to become president of the European Commission.

"For a lot of people, Europe has the same reputation as sweaty feet," a frustrated Martin Schulz told Brussels correspondents a few weeks ago. But Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, does not want to give up. Instead, in his campaign for the upcoming EU election, he plans to explain why Europe is necessary.

In Rome on Saturday (01.03.2014), the 58-year-old Schulz will be chosen as the frontrunner for the Party of European Socialists(PES) in the May EU election.

For the first time, European social democrats from all 28 member countries will be represented by a common candidate. The conservatives in European Parliament will name their candidate in the coming week, with Luxembourg's former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker likely facing off against Schulz.

The leading candidates aim to claim the EU's highest administrative office: that of the President of the European Commission. Schulz wants to take over the post from the current conservative president, Jose Manuel Barroso, will end his term in office in November.

After this election, the EU heads of state and government will have to take into account the election results when nominating the Commission president. Until now, the EU big shots had been able to make their decisions behind closed doors. But the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009, stipulates that for the first time, the European Parliament will have a say in choosing the Commission president. Schulz's campaign advisers have recognized this chance, and aim to take a personalized approach.

Barroso and Schulz in Strasbourg

Barroso (left) will end his term in office in November

Schulz still has a number of hurdles

Campaign organizers in the various party headquarters believe that the rather bland European elections, which have previously suffered from a low turnout, will now be spiced up with recognizable faces in the mix. Schulz and Juncker represent Europe's two main political camps, and are known beyond their home countries. "Europe needs to risk more democracy," said Udo Bullman, head of the German Social Democrats in the European Parliament.

The fact that Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, with its repeal of a restrictive clause that required parties win 3 percent of the vote to enter European Parliament, has paved the way to Brussels for Europe's smallest parties and factions and has not thrilled Schulz. But either way, he thinks, this election will see Europeans choose a direction, either Socialist or Conservative from the parliament's major groupings.

At the moment, the Conservatives form the largest group in the European Parliament. Early polls have suggested that they have a slim lead over the Socialists, or that at least it will be a neck-and-neck race. In the last European election, Germany's Social Democrats, of which Schulz is also the top candidate, won just 20.8 percent of the vote. Schulz will need more support from Germany, especially from Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel, a Christian Democrat and leader of the largest EU member state, will be influential when the top European positions are chosen. Schulz prides himself on having a good relationship with the chancellor when it comes to European policy issues - at least by phone. And with Merkel currently leading a grand coalition of Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists and Social Democrats (SPD) in Berlin, she could deicide to back the SPD's Schulz in the end.

Following Obama's lead

For the first time, the PES will be running a common campaign in all 28 member states. "Our model is the election campaign of [US President] Barack Obama," said the party's press officer, Brian Synnott. Inspired by Obama's election campaigns, the PES plans to reach out to voters online, with Facebook and Twitter, in addition to an intensive door-to-door campaign.

Merkel, Schulz and Hollande

Schulz will need the support of Europe's top leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel

"We only need 5 percent more support for the Socialists to become the strongest force in parliament," said Synnott. The Socialists have dubbed the campaign "Knock the Vote." Thousands of volunteers will spend the 90 days before the election knocking on millions of doors across Europe in an attempt to mobilize voters, in addition to the classic campaign events in town squares and other big venues.

But it will be their candidate, Schulz, who will be at the center of attention. "We have received requests from all EU member states, and he will visit all 28 countries," said Synnott. Despite tight deadlines and potential conflicts of interest, Schulz said campaigning will not come at the expense of his duties as president of the European Parliament.

PES organizers were hesitant to specify which countries would be the focus of the campaign. "But, of course, you need the support of the large member states, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland - that's where the most seats are," said Synnott. It's still unclear whether Schulz will be popping up on billboards and in TV commercials across Europe. The PES has left that decision up to each individual country.

The outspoken Schulz, who has sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, is not the most popular political figure in every EU state, as he himself has realized. At a recent meeting in Strasbourg, Schulz said a young French woman asked him why, out of all the European politicians, it had to be a German running for the presidency of the Commission. It seems that reservations about Europe's strongest economic member state still play a role in EU politics.

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