Since launching their election manifesto in Madrid in December 2008 (EurActiv 03/12/08), the European Socialists have repeatedly attacked the European centre-right, which they hold responsible for the "neo-liberal" economic strategies which they claim are behind the current financial crisis. The PES believes voters across Europe will share this view in 2009, and vote for Socialist candidates in increased numbers.
Intriguingly, the June 2009 European Parliament ballot is the world's first major election to be held since the escalation of the global economic downturn, with the notable exception of the US presidential election, which was won by centre-left candidate Barack Obama.
Mid-term protest vote could shift balance to the left
"There is a strong tradition at European Parliament elections of voters protesting against or punishing their national government parties," a political analyst told EurActiv. As a result, fringe and extremist parties tend to do well at the polls, which often fall mid-term between national elections.
A second effect of this pattern is that when the left dominates European governments, the right increases its representation in the European Parliament, and vice-versa. Currently, centre-right parties dominate in European governments, so if the protest pattern holds true, the PES should be in a strong position to increase its number of MEPs, said the analyst.
Does David Cameron hold the key to Socialist success?
However, according to sources, there is a possibility that the Socialists' fate may ultimately be beyond the control of voters, and could rest in the hands of one of Europe's highest-profile centre-right leaders.
As reported by EurActiv (12/01/09), British Conservative leader David Cameron has pledged to remove his party's 27 MEPs from their "loveless marriage" with the European People's Party (EPP) in the Parliament's majority EPP-ED group.
Yesterday, a Conservative delegation headed by the party's foreign affairs spokesman, William Hague, met Joseph Daul, leader of the EPP-ED group in Strasbourg, and confirmed that Tory leader David Cameron intends to pull out of the EPP-ED and establish a new group in the European Parliament after the 2009 elections.
The prospect of forming a new group is realistic, say analysts, provided that the Tories can find enough suitable partners. Conservative MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, a Cameron ally, yesterday told the BBC that negotiations are ongoing with "mainstream parties of government and serious politicians who are not happy with where they're sitting in the parliament at the moment". The group, it is believed, would be called the European Conservatives.
However, while the formation of a new group would satisfy Cameron's long-standing pledge and still, potentially, afford his MEPs a strong degree of prominence, it could also have significant political implications for the Tory leader.
Should the PES increase its number of MEPs by as few as 40, and Cameron pull his 27 Tory MEPs and their nine Czech ODS allies into a new group, he would be directly responsible for making the PES the majority group in the Parliament.
Eventually, this would also influence the nomination of the new Commission president, as EU leaders will choose a candidate following the outcome of the elections.
A leading Conservative source, speaking to EurActiv, questioned whether Cameron "would like to be responsible as the man who ensured that a socialist led the next Commission with a centre-left mandate, because he had insisted on pulling the Tories out of the joint [EPP-ED] group".
British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott, who chairs her party's delegation in the Parliament, also alluded to this possibility in an interview with EurActiv.
"We could end up being the largest group when we come back in July if the UK Conservatives leave, which they seem committed to doing," she said, adding that this "is bound to have a massive impact on the politics of the European Parliament".
The Conservative source believes that should this possibility arise, Cameron will have no difficulty in back-tracking on the pledge he made in 2005: "Cameron's original proposal was couched in wonderfully ambiguous language, and if the situation changes, he can change his view. If he was told he can either commit to the EU being led by a Socialist for the next five years or decide to stay within the EPP-ED, it would take five minutes to write the press release" authorising the continuity of the joint group, the source argued.