EU Commission Candidate Seeks More Privacy and Less Extremism

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2014 New York Times News Service

BRUSSELS — Martin Schulz, the Socialist contender to run the main policy-making body for the European Union, warned on Wednesday against the rise of extremism in Europe and pledged to defend the bloc against what he described as unfair behavior by American technology companies.

Schulz, who has served as president of the European Parliament since 2012, also said he would make additional digital privacy protections a precondition for a trade deal with the United States, a particularly sensitive issue in Europe following the disclosures by the former security contractor Edward J. Snowden that the U.S. National Security Agency had monitored European leaders.

Schulz, a 58-year-old German, is seeking the presidency of the European Commission, a sprawling civil service that can impose large fines on companies and propose legislation in areas from setting the level of bankers’ bonuses to how much pollution factories can emit.

He presented his program to the commission here two weeks before elections for the European Parliament. The vote, to be held across the 28-member bloc May 22-25, could for the first time determine the leadership of the commission.

The president of the commission serves for five years and has the authority to set policy priorities, speak on behalf of the 27 other commissioners and represent the bloc at international meetings.

Schulz rose to prominence in 2003 after he questioned Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister of Italy, about an immunity law Berlusconi was sponsoring while facing bribery charges. During that exchange, at the European Parliament, Berlusconi set off an uproar by comparing Schulz to a Nazi prison guard.

On Wednesday, Schulz described recent remarks by Berlusconi criticizing him and Germany as “really shameful attacks.”

Warning of dangers to Europe posed by the rise of far-right parties, Schulz said that “apologists for Adolf Hitler could get a seat in the next European Parliament.”

Schulz called on voters to counter extremism and to reinforce the role of the union as a means to deepen economic integration, “as a tool to defend our democratic systems and values in a time in which they are under threat internally and in worldwide competition.”

Allowing the European Parliament to determine who runs the commission would mark a break with the past, when government leaders would assign top jobs behind closed doors.

A center-right political group led by Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg and former head of the group of eurozone finance ministers, could win the parliamentary elections, possibly relegating Schulz to a lesser role on the commission. And European government leaders could ignore the election results and name an alternative, though that person would need final approval from the Parliament.

While small-scale by the standards of national politics — reflecting a relative lack of interest in European politics — the campaigns led by Juncker and Schulz have gained some momentum. Both have held rallies across Europe, attended televised debates with leading candidates from other political groups and sought support through social media.

Like Juncker, Schulz has no plans to campaign in Britain, where there is widespread skepticism about the European Union. The British Labour Party has abstained from supporting Schulz, who wants to give Brussels a leading role in determining fair wages and tax rates.

On Wednesday, Schulz made clear that he would use the presidency of the commission to regulate American technology companies like Google more aggressively and respond to disclosures about the wide reach of U.S. government surveillance that have shaken trans-Atlantic relations.

There is a risk that “Europe becomes completely dependent on United States companies,” Schulz said. He pointed to a need to “break the monopolies” so that “European companies could compete.” His words raised the possibility that Schulz could unwind an antitrust settlement with Google that the EU’s competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, has said he wants to finalize this year.

Critics, including Google’s competitors, have said the proposed settlement does not provide them enough protection.

“Those who compete with Google” would “have to pay for it,” said Schulz, apparently referring to shortcomings in Almunia’s proposed settlement. “We have to improve this,” Schulz said, again apparently referring to the settlement.

Schulz also raised an additional hurdle to a landmark Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact that is aimed at lowering tariffs and aligning regulations with the United States.

Referring to an initiative he would support that could oblige companies to grant access to data they collected about individuals, he said there needed to be “a clear, defined standard of individual rights in the digital world” in the form of a “digital bill of rights for the European citizens” before any such trade agreement could be agreed upon.