Vowing not to give up on Europe, Socialist party leaders called for a continental "people's conference" Friday to defuse the European Union's latest crisis and pledged to create jobs while defending cherished social protections.
Top Socialist and Social Democratic officials from about 20 countries met in Vienna to discuss ways to strengthen ties among the EU's 450 million citizens in the aftermath of a bruising battle over the bloc's budget and the French and Dutch rejections of its proposed constitution.
Stimulating lackluster economies, creating new jobs and improving pay and benefits are the best ways to counter fears that the steadily enlarging EU will unleash a crush of cheap immigrant labor and put people out of work, the party leaders said.
"We will not be among those who will give up on Europe," said Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister and a European Parliament deputy who heads the Party of European Socialists.
"It's not time to break down. It's time to reinforce," Nyrup Rasmussen told reporters. "It's time to understand what people said 'no' to in the Netherlands and France."
Party leaders agreed to develop a new European strategy for achieving high economic growth with more and better jobs. They said they would hold a conference with prime ministers on that goal in the autumn.
They said they also would organize a "people's conference" on Europe's future to be held in most or all EU member states, and draft a plan to modernize social protections that can function in the globalized economy.
"It was the Social Democrats and Socialists who created Europe's postwar welfare states, and it is Social Democrats and Socialists who will create the new European social model for the 21st Century," Nyrup Rasmussen said.
Staking out a tough defense of the European social model of job security and generous welfare benefits, he urged leaders to redouble their commitment to "more jobs in a competitive Europe continuing to offer decent and necessary social protections to its citizens."
More than 300 delegates, including about 20 national party leaders and several prime ministers, also were taking stock of the foundering effort to salvage the constitution, the 25-nation bloc's bitter squabble over its 2007-13 budget and rising unease over mostly Muslim Turkey's drive to join.
"This is the real agenda for Europe," Nyrup Rasmussen said. "What worries ordinary people is not the constitution but uncertainty over their economic future."
Alfred Gusenbauer, the head of Austria's Social Democratic Party, called for "a fundamental debate that leads to a re-engineering of Europe" with a greater voice and influence from the political left.
"We are the ones who are ready for change. We are the ones who understand the people," Gusenbauer said. "It will be Social Democrats and not conservatives who shape the new Europe."
Nyrup Rasmussen said the continent's Socialists and Social Democrats hoped to strengthen their cooperation "to create a new political space in Europe and achieve stronger influence in Europe for social democratic ideas."
The Socialist group had launched a campaign ahead of last month's French referendum on the constitution in an attempt to promote the benefits of the charter, which must be ratified by all 25 EU member states for it to take effect.
France soundly rejected the constitution on May 29, and Dutch voters overwhelmingly shot it down three days later. Many expressed misgivings over an unprecedented wave of immigrants in countries like France struggling with double-digit joblessness.
"People said 'no' not to enlargement" of the EU, which is set to take in Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, "but to the consequences they fear," Nyrup Rasmussen said. Socialists, he said, must counter the extreme right, "which is trying to create a new nationalism."
WILLIAM J. KOLE, Associated Press Writer
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