Road to Democracy

Ursula von der Leyen - Credit: Flickr \ dirkvorderstrasse (Creative Commons)

With bad omens over the forthcoming EU elections, Glyn Ford  argues European Socialists should go for broke.

The portents are grim for June’s European Parliament (EP) Elections. The Left – including the Socialists – will continue to haemorrhage support while right populists, xenophobes, and the far-right surge to the extent that they will finish first in a third of Member States and second or third in another nine. They with the centre-right Christian Democrats will have the numbers to deliver a parliamentary majority. Patrick Costello (Chartist 327, February-March 2024) has already signalled death foretold. For the first time there will be an unruly and wayward majority on the right. The prognosis is sufficiently dire that Europe’s Liberals may end up being pushed into fifth place behind the political groups effectively commanded by France’s Le Pen and the new-fascist Alliance for Germany on the one hand and Italy’s Meloni on the other.

What is to be done? The Socialists can carry on, as they have for the last quarter of a century of slow decline, collaborating in a de facto Grand Coalition with the centre-right Christian Democrats in place throughout the Parliament’s short half-century. At the beginning it was cutting the policy cake, yet with each election since 1994 the Socialist slice has shrunk. Now all that’s on offer will be crumbs from the policy table when the unruly far-right fails to deliver. Settling for less of the same is the council of despair. As the political temperature rises it’s time for the socialist lobster to spring from the pot before its future is cooked.

Those, like Thatcher, who bellyached about the undemocratic nature of the European Union had a point, even when they were the saboteurs of change. The breakthrough came with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. More conceit than design, it ceded to the EP the showpiece of the final ratification of the European Council’s nominee as President of the European Commission. Intended purely as spectacle, opportunity didn’t need to knock twice. The ceremonial was re-purposed and re-shaped in contrast as Parliamentary confirmation of person and programme. Julian Priestley, former Secretary General of the EP – and twice Labour candidate against David Owen in Plymouth – developed with Martin Schulz, the Socialist President of the EP, the proposal that the Party of European Socialists (PES) select a lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat) to campaign across the EU as the socialist nominee for Commission President. The ambition was to create a European politics that was more than the mere sum of the national parts and drive the required democratisation of Europe’s Institutions if the EU was to build an organic connection with its citizens. 

Where the PES went the Christian Democrats, Liberals and Greens had little choice but follow. The 2014 European Elections were for the first time personified with competing programmes. The initial deal saw the two lead candidates agree on behalf of their respective political groups that they would back whoever’s party commanded more seats in the EP post-election. Schulz (Socialist) narrowly lost out to Jean-Claude Junker (Christian Democrat), but the precedent was set. Member State leaders were furious that their prerogative of choice had been usurped by a democratic process – and Angela Merkel tried to sabotage the process and succeeded five years later in 2019. This time Von der Leyen is facing off against Nicolas Schmidt, the PES’ putative Secretary General, in an ill-matched contest. 

Yet there is within June’s coming defeat the seeds of future victories. The way forward is for the Socialists to lose their fear of opposition, rather than collude in negotiating their degree of subordination to the right. Von der Leyen is not the problem; it’s her political programme and her allocation of portfolios that will be shaped by the strengthened forces on the right. They will demand xenophobic policies with respect to immigration and asylum, a political gutting of the meat in the Green Deal and the watering down of social policy in the interests of competition – ie profits. The Socialists – and the wider Left – are, because of careless drafting of the Treaty, in an extremely powerful position up until the point of confirmation.

 To be confirmed as Commission President in the EP always requires the votes of an absolute majority, 374 in 2019. Few are aware that her seemingly simple victory in 2019 with Socialist support – 383 to 327 with 22 abstentions – had masked within it a mere majority of nine. If the new matrix of political forces acts in September as they did back in 2019 Von der Leyen will be rejected. Her weakness is our strength. Not to exploit it would be an historic mistake. European Socialists cannot continue to self-harm, complicit in their own electoral degradation. The re-energised right will be rampant in trying to set the European agenda after June. The Socialists – if they are not to connive in their own marginalisation – must counter by formulating a minimum set of demands for the work programme – and subsequent portfolios – Von der Leyen will present to the EP in Strasbourg on the eve of the confirmation. Socialist votes should be conditional on their delivery.

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