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The future of the European Socialists: Adapt or become obsolete?

Over the course of the weekend, on 7 and 8 December, the Party of European Socialists (PES) held its party conference in Lisbon, Portugal. With the event, the PES, which makes up the majority of the European political group called the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), kickstarted its campaign for the upcoming European elections in May 2019. More than a thousand participants – prime ministers, party officials, delegates, activists, academics and guests – from 56 different countries took part in the congress.

Centre stage was reserved for current European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans. His nomination as the European Socialists’ Spitzenkandidat for next year’s elections was straightforward following the withdrawal of the only other candidate, Maroš Šef?ovi?, also currently Commission Vice-President. Fully aware of the Socialists’ falling fortunes in recent times, Timmermans was quick to point out that the European Socialists will need to adapt if they do not want to “become obsolete”. Turning to the most recent polls, this is most certainly the case.

The S&D Group is on course to win only 142 out of 705 seats in the next European legislature. Experiencing disappointing results in national elections, socialist parties are recording their worst results in decades. Add to this the loss of 20 British seats due to the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU, and the European Socialists are on course to lose 47 seats in the upcoming elections in comparison to the current legislature, where they hold 189. This amount will most probably keep them afloat as the second largest group in the European Parliament, but it does dash their hopes of overturning the current European ruling regime held by the European Union’s largest political group, the European People’s Party (EPP).

While the European Socialists proclaimed during their congress that they aim to end the centre-right EPP’s rule over the three main EU institutions (Commission, Council and Parliament), they will struggle to substantiate their claim for several reasons.

On the one hand, the Socialists do not have the necessary leverage to pull their weight in the European Council, comprising the heads of state or government of the EU member states. Currently, the European Socialists only represent six of the 28 members of the European Council (Malta, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Slovakia and Romania). The EPP and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) currently both have eight representatives. Between now and the European elections of next year, the only national elections taking place are those in Finland, Estonia and Belgium. All three countries currently have a head of state or government with an ALDE nomenclature and neither of them is expected to yield their governing position to a Socialist. As such, the European Socialists will need to punch above their weight in the European Council, the institution which holds the greatest power in the division of the positions of President of the Commission, Council and Parliament.

On the other hand, the S&D Group will nervously be looking over its should to the ALDE when it comes to the composition of the European Parliament. Heavily criticising Emmanuel Macron and his La République en Marche (LREM), the Socialists hammered home during their conference the fact that the French President is certainly not an ally. Macron’s LREM has already made it publicly clear that it is their intention to turn the European elections into a direct duel between progressives and nationalists. As LREM has also indicated they would be willing to open their liberal alliance to socialist parties, this move would serve to the detriment of the Socialists’ efforts to rival the centre-right EPP for the EU’s leadership. Indeed, several former socialist heads of government have already indicated their willingness to join such a pro-European alliance. While the ALDE, in combination with LREM, will most probably not rival the S&D Group for second largest party in the upcoming European Parliament (together, the polls indicate they would win around 92 seats), their combined efforts do present a threat to the European Socialists in the longer run.

All the above means the European Socialists will probably have a smaller role to play in the upcoming European transformation than they are hoping and striving for. Of course, much will depend on the actual outcome of the European elections, especially with Eurosceptic voices gaining traction. Also, as the expected second largest group in the European Parliament and with its six representatives in the European Council, the group will still play a major role in the near future. Looking further ahead, however, European Socialists will certainly need to adapt if they do not want to “become obsolete”’.