European politics in the last decade has been quite a rollercoaster for the socialist political forces, but nevertheless, the S&D Group (and its previous forms) in the European Parliament has consistently either won or placed second in every election in the European Parliament’s history.
The strongest Socialist in the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, has been shown to the public as being European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘Socialist conscience’. While Timmermans’ influence on Juncker’s decisions has been limited, the Dutchman has done a spectacular job at (theoretically) positioning himself as a favourite for the Socialists’ spitzenkandidaten position.
Since Juncker’s election, Timmermans has been angling at the top job both publicly and privately, often in the past creating tension in and outside the Berlaymont to achieve this goal.
But much like former Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem, their political party’s demise has meant that his personal ambitions have largely been crushed by the political reality. The Labour Party (PvdA), in 2017, received just 5.7% of votes, and losing 29 of its 38 seats in parliament.
And while theoretically either of them can be designated as a spitzenkandidat, the political reality is that the government in the Netherlands – like any other government, would not easily accept a Commission President from across the isle, even if it were one of their own countrymen (this in the unlikely case that somehow the Socialists win the European Elections).
Another favourite often in the press for the Socialist spitzen candidate is of course HRVP Federica Mogherini. Her party is also set for an electoral defeat in March, and most importantly, Mogherini’s ambition and erratic political behavior has cost her the support of Matteo Renzi in Italy, who has removed her from his inner circle. Her personal ambitions also include heading to the Council to follow Donald Tusk, but the aforementioned reasons make that difficult too.
One Italian who has thrust himself into the political mix, is outgoing Chairman of the S&D Group in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella. Though, when asked, Pittella would most likely tell you that the time has come for him “to serve Italy”, his service to Europe in the last decades and his devotion to European values could make him a viable Commissioner for Italy in the case of a grand coalition.
Pittella’s departure has left a gaping hole in the socialist group, with many vying for the leadership spot. While Udo Bullmann is seen in- and out-side of the group as the favoured and strongest candidate, Maria João Rodrigues is one of the few names that could prevent – as an S&D source put it, “another German in a leadership position.” Whether her relationship of trust with Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa will be enough to get the top party spot in the Parliament is uncertain. For those holding their breath, the official coronation will be in mid-March. Despite any arguments for and against both candidates (and indeed any other candidate), one can only hope that for the good of the S&D Group that it is the most qualified candidate that takes over.
The biggest open question in the 2019 European elections remains what the French President, Emmanuel Macron will do. Pittella told the press recently that his party had nothing to do with Macron’s European plans, but rumours of Macron potentially teaming up with selected European political forces have included a possible cooperation with Renzi.
The long-awaited German coalition has meant a huge win for the Social Democrats (SPD), and temporarily their – at the time of publication of this article – ‘former’ leader Martin Schulz. The nearly Foreign Minister of Germany saw his chance in the selection of the European Socialist Party’s spitzenkandidat dwindle late Friday afternoon, but turned him into a viable candidate.
It is questionable whether Schulz could get support from the PES congress, with mutterings of betrayal and self-serving from his peers, but what is for certain is that he is now a strong candidate for the position of spitzenkandidaten – and given the coalition, even that of Germany’s next Commissioner.
In other national news, in Spain, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is now polling in 3rd position, as the Liberal Ciudadanos Party has surged to lead opinion polls, even ahead of Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular.
Meanwhile, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, seen by many as the Socialist Party’s Viktor Orbán, continues to tie down the Socialists with divergent ideals form the traditional members of Party of European Socialists. But with Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni on his way out, powerful socialist forces at the Council level will significantly dwindle.
Generally speaking, the Socialists are in a difficult position. They are set to lose a number of seats in the European Parliament, more so as Macron continues to have a destabilizing effect on the entire system. The spitzenkandidat process will be seen by some in the Party as a formality, and by others as an opportunity to (re)thrust themselves into the limelight. Most importantly for the party, it will be the opportunity for the party to define its political path and direction in the (new) European political map..