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Socialists launch campaign for European elections

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(ROME) - European Socialists on Saturday were to launch their election campaign by anointing Martin Schulz as their candidate for European Commission president and adopting a manifesto calling for urgent social action.

The Party of European Socialists, which brings together social democrats from 28 EU member states, was to give its backing to Schulz, a former bookseller from Aachen in Germany who is president of the European Parliament.

The manifesto due to be approved at a congress in Rome ahead of European Parliament elections in May accused the right wing of creating "a Europe of fear and austerity" in five years of a conservative majority.

The socialists said their programme "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".

"It is time to put jobs first and to build a social Europe," former Bulgarian prime minister and PES leader Sergei Stanishev said in a speech at the meeting.

Participants at the congress included Austrian Chancellor Chancellor Werner Faymann, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

Social-democrats are in a minority in Europe, holding power in 11 countries -- sometimes in coalitions with the right -- and the PES has 195 lawmakers at the European Parliament compared to 275 conservatives.

The latest polls, however, show them neck and neck with the European People's Party or even slightly ahead.

Their manifesto called for an end to "social dumping" through worker exploitation and precarious contracts, as well as "decent minimum wages across Europe".

They also said that "austerity-only policy" had harmed Europe's economy and it was time to bring down public budget deficits in "a sustainable and fair way".

"We will be tough guardians of public money, enhancing the quality of public spending, cutting out waste and directing expenditure to get the best value", it read.

- Straight-talker -

For the first time this year following the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon, member states will have to take into account the result of the European elections when they pick a president for the European Commission.

Unlike the EPP conservatives, the PES chose its candidate for the post -- Schulz -- months ago and Saturday's congress is only his formal designation.

The 58-year-old is a man of character and determination who can be outgoing and warm but also tough, sometimes brutally so, and he has earned a reputation in Brussels as a politician who does not mince his words.

"You have to talk straight so that people understand you," says this dyed-in-the-wool pro-European, who was first elected to the European Parliament in 1994.

It is ironic that his candidacy is taking place in Rome since he really made his name in a confrontation with then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2003.

During a debate, 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.

"Mister 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 Kapo -- 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 self-control and restraint on such a sensitive issue.

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