LISBON – Europe’s socialists want to be the largest pro-EU and progressive force in the European Parliament — just don’t expect them to include Emmanuel Macron.
At their annual congress ahead of the May 2019 European Parliament election, Europe’s socialist leaders are firing up the party faithful and honing their pitch to the Continent’s voters. But with socialist parties suffering electoral set-backs across Europe, and the French president looking to create his own power base in the Strasbourg Parliament in part by peeling away some of their number, they are facing an uphill struggle.
The modest gathering in a Lisbon university is a far cry from the late 1990s when socialists were the largest political party in the European Parliament and led governments in Berlin, London and Rome.
Today, the only EU country with an outright socialist government is Malta, in addition to minority, coalition or caretaker governments in Spain, Romania, Portugal and Sweden.
The party is on track to win only 142 seats out of 705 in the next European Parliament, on the back of just 20 percent of the EU-wide vote.
This weekend, delegates will formally endorse Frans Timmermans as their candidate to replace Jean-Claude Juncker
“Social-democracy is going through difficult times,” said Paul Magnette, the former minister-president of the Belgian region of Wallonia who famously held-up the EU-Canada free trade deal in 2016, and will top his party’s list in Belgium in the 2019 EU election.
The Lisbon congress kicked off late and with little fanfare, in a minor building of a university outside the city centre. Udo Bullmann, leader of the socialist group in the European Parliament, felt compelled to defend the venue from the conference stage as “more dynamic” than a five-star hotel or conference center.
“I’m the only lobbyist here,” complained one German flak, outside the congress auditorium.
This weekend, delegates will formally endorse Frans Timmermans — currently first vice-president of the Commission — as their candidate to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president.
Timmermans’ cautious and moderate approach to his work in Brussels — which has included efforts to uphold rule of law in EU countries and cutting a migration deal with Turkey — sat at odds with fiery rhetoric from the conference stage Friday.
First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans will be elected as the socialist candidate to replace Jean-Claude Juncker | Mario Cruz/EPA
Speaker after speaker called for a radical shift in government and EU policies across Europe.
Former Danish prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen said a one percent tax on the turnover of “digital giants” is a socialist priority. “I feel the same wind of change as before the Berlin Wall fell. Capitalism is sick. It does not work,” Rasmussen said.
Timmermans isn’t the only one out of step with the prevailing socialist mood.
While U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a hero to many here for his uncompromising radical policy positions, he is at odds with nearly all delegates when it comes to the European Union, whose powers most socialist delegates would like to see expanded.
Delegates will be discussing what Bullmann called a “radically new approach,” particularly on digital revolution and green transition. They will also debate more than 100 proposals to be implemented for the next five years, including ideas like strengthening trade unions, launching an action plan of fair Wages in Europe, and a “transition from minimum wages to living wages.”
“[Macron is] an elite president of the super rich” — Udo Bullmann, leader of the socialist group in the European Parliament
Just minutes after Bullmann said it was time to “dismantle the far-right,” the limited ability of socialists to deliver that vision was illustrated by the European socialist party canceling the membership of the struggling social democratic party of Hungary (MSZDP). “We need to close it down in a humane way,” said conference chair Ruairi Quinn, due to inactivity and lack of parliamentary success.
French president Emmanuel Macron was a popular punching bag on the conference stage.
Bullmann called the French leader, “an elite president of the super rich [who] has intellectual thoughts that are not wrong, but is trying to implement them against the people.”
His current struggle to respond to the protests in France by the so-called “Yellow jackets” should encourage him to choose a camp, Bullmann said. “Whether you are worth us and worth the people or whether you are with the elite and with the big money guys,” he added.
The French president had promised to turn the 2019 European election into a duel between his vision for a progressive Europe and Matteo Salvini’s nationalist vision — an effort to displace the socialists as the chief rival to the center-right European People’s Party. Currently Europe’s biggest and most powerful political group, it holds the presidencies of the European Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker), European Council (Donald Tusk) and European Parliament (Antonio Tajani).
Unlike most European parties, the socialists are set to win MEPs in all 27 EU countries. Their problem though is depth. In election after election, poll after poll, socialist parties are recording their worst results in decades.
Group leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament Udo Bullmann has touted a “radically new approach” | Ian Langsdon/EPA
French socialists dipped below 5 percent support in a September poll issued by Odoxa. Germany’s SPD are polling at their lowest levels ever, often in fourth place. After having been one of Italy’s most prominent political force, the Democratic Party won only 18.7 percent of the votes, its worst-ever result in the country’s general elections in March.
Thanks to Brexit, the socialists will also lose 20 British MEPs from the Labour party.
The solution to this shrinking base according to Maria João Rodrigues, a Portuguese MEP and vice-president of the socialist group in Parliament, is to build “a large alliance of pro-European progressive forces.”
But Macron won’t be welcomed into the fold. The French president is “not an ally in the social modernization of our countries,” Bullmann said.
In contrast, Macron’s République En Marche party has made clear they would open their liberal alliance to socialist parties.
Former socialist heads of government including Matteo Renzi from Italy, Christian Kern from Austria and Helle Thorning-Schmidt have shown willingness to join a Macron-led alliance in the future. Joseph Muscat, the socialist prime minister of Malta, even signed an editorial in The Guardian to support Macron’s reforms.
To deliver their dreams the socialists announced the creation of a campaign academy that would train 15,000 party activists between now and the European Parliament election.
Ryan Heath contributed reporting to this article.