Socialist MEPs are exploring a left-wing alternative to their traditional alliance with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which currently rules the European Parliament.
A “Progressive Caucus” was recently launched in Parliament, consisting of MEPs from three political groups – the leftist GUE-NGL, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Greens–European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA).
The caucus held its first public event on Tuesday (6 September), a debate on trade entitled: “CETA, TTIP: two sides of the same coin?”. EURACTIV.com spoke with several MEPs at the event about the chances of the alliance one day becoming the first political force in the Assembly.
Sources confirmed that discussions were ongoing within the S&D group regarding the future viability of the grand coalition with the EPP. Some socialist lawmakers believe that turning left is the only solution for the S&D to survive while others are reluctant to take such a leap.
The S&D is currently the second largest political group in the European Parliament, behind the centre-right EPP. The two groups have formed a “grand coalition” at the beginning of the legislature, allowing them to share key political posts in the Assembly and the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
A left-wing agenda
But apart from a basic political agenda and key principles on European integration, their political views remain far apart. The divide has even tended to deepen as a consequence of austerity policies and the refugee crisis.
French MEP Emmanuel Maurel (S&D) said the idea of an alliance came up because of ongoing tensions within the grand coalition around these two defining challenges for Europe.
“Then we felt the need to create another forum against austerity and for a new social model,” Maurel said, adding that the alliance’s aim is to create “breathing space” in Parliament and allow room for debate.
Faced with so many different crises, the worst thing for the European socialist family would be to stick to the grand coalition practices, the French politician believes.
“We have huge problems and in the end, we have a deal between Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz,” Maurel said, referring to the presidents of the European Commission and Parliament who are respectively from the EPP and Socialist family.
“We had a Brexit vote and the Parliament said nothing would happen,” Maurel said, venting his disappointment.
“In fact, what we want to do is to face the ‘lack of move’ in a static Parliament,” he stressed, saying European socialists need to put forward a new project that will mobilise the middle and the working class.
And according to Maurel, S&D chief Gianni Pittella has his ears wide open. “He is listening to what we are saying. He is not indifferent at all and this is very important for us.”
Regarding the future of EU socialism, he says that “being a little bit socialist and a little bit liberal does not lead anywhere. We have to make another step”.
Asked why several socialist MEPs decided against joining the progressive alliance, he replied that some lawmakers want to follow Martin Schulz, who is a supporter of the grand coalition.
“But lots of socialists coming from Italy, France, and Germany are aware of the fact that we cannot continue like that and if there is another project for Europe we have to claim it with all these people sharing the same ideas. And it’s obvious that many people in GUE-NGL or the Greens Group have the same ideas as us.”
He also expressed his full support for the leftist Syriza government, saying that Greek premier Alexis Tsipras has struggled courageously.
“For me, he represents the hope of tomorrow’s left. I don’t want to interfere in Greek politics, but as a European socialist I want to discuss with Syriza, I want to work with them and I think there is space for Syriza in our group.”
For Sergio Cofferati, an Italian MEP from the S&D group, the new leftist alliance is an important experiment.
“It’s an attempt to put together different point of views in different groups.”
“I think that this experiment could be transformed into a concrete practice of voting in Parliament. There are many issues where we can find convergence but there are also many disagreements in all groups,” he said, emphasising that the objective is to reach a common point of view.
He also believes the culture of the left has changed in recent years, pointing to new or emerging political parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.
Eastern MEPs reluctant
However, many socialist MEPs do not feel comfortable with the adoption of a leftist agenda and oppose “flirting” with Syriza.
Socialist lawmakers, especially in Eastern European countries, are particularly reluctant due to historical reasons, Parliament sources told EURACTIV.com.
“These MEPs disagree with such a leftist agenda as they fear potential destabilisation,” said one lawmaker, who spoke to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.
“For instance in the discussion on Hungary’s government, some lawmakers from western Europe ask for a stricter EU stance while eastern MEPs say we should give more space to the center-right government otherwise people will vote for far-right.”
The good relations Syriza entertains with Russia are another source of irritation for Eastern MEPs. During their first year in power Greek government officials visited Russia and explored potential avenues for cooperation, despite ongoing tensions with the West due to the crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
Despite those disagreements, Socialist MEPs have increasingly taken the habit of proposing common amendments with the Greens or leftist MEPs, going against the spirit of the “grand coalition”.
“The EPP cooperates with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and therefore socialists are forced to rely on votes from the left-wing part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). This is particularly visible in the LIBE and TRAN committees,” the sources explained.
For many, the government that will ultimately be formed in Spain will play a key role for the future of the S&D. Madrid lurches towards its third election in a year following several failed attempts to form a government and possible cooperation between the leftist Podemos and socialists is gaining ground.
“In the event that this happens we will be forced to get people from GUE-NGL,” a socialist source warned.
EURACTIV has learnt that several socialist MEPs have sent letters to the leadership of the group, suggesting immediate action to prevent further losses in the next EU elections.
This group of MEPs calls for a differentiation from both the EPP and the extreme left even if this results in a deadlock in decision-making within Parliament.
S&D afraid of ‘Pasokification’
Dimitris Papadimoulis, Vice-President of the European Parliament and Syriza MEP, told EURACTIV that the progressive coalition’s objective was to formulate an alternative for a European Union in crisis and which is becoming increasingly unpopular among EU citizens.
“Extreme right political forces are on the rise and the collapse of the EU is on the top of their agenda”, Papadimoulis noted, adding that up to now approximately 100 MEPs have participated in the discussions including the “progressive part of the S&D”.
He said that more and more socialist MEPs expressed concerns about “sticking” with the EPP and fear a “Pasokification” scenario.
The Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) is the S&D party member in Greece. It was a PASOK Prime Minister who revealed the massive fraud with the country’s budget statistics and who signed the country’s first bailout programme.
Since then, PASOK has seen its approval ratings drop significantly. According to opinion polls, the party will barely manage to enter the next parliament.
And within the S&D, PASOK seems to have lost much of its credibility. A high-ranking S&D source recently told EURACTIV that the Greek socialist member party was “completely isolated” within the S&D group due to its “embarrassing” stance toward the government’s negotiations with its creditors.
“The ‘right-wing socialists’ have compromised with the current regime dominated by the grand coalition and that’s where the problem is: within the Parliament there is no opposition,” says Syriza MEP Stelios Kouloglou, who backs the pre-election proposals of the French socialists.
The leftist alliance, he said, represent “the promises that François Hollande made but never kept.”
After pressure, Pittella reacted by saying that PASOK is a fundamental and irreplaceable asset of the European socialist family and its leader, Fofi Gennimata, has significantly contributed to tackling “the refugee crisis”.