Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was elected yesterday (24 November) as leader of the Party of European Socialists. The former Bulgarian prime minister says the European centre-left opposes a Europe of different speeds, where two or three countries decide for the others.
Stanishev, 45, replaces Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister who held the office of PES president for almost eight years. Stanishev will serve in an interim capacity until a PES congress in Bucharest on 28-29 September 2012, when the next leader will be elected a two-and-a-half year period.
According to party sources, the interim appointment of Stanishev puts him in a leading position for the Socialist top job for the longer term. Rasmussen is reportedly leaving due to illness.
Among the unwritten prerequisites, the ideal PES leader must be a strong leader in his own country, preferably a former prime minister who has participated in European summits, have a keen interest in EU affairs, and be fluent in English.
Stanishev fits all these requirements, especially as he was prime minister from 2005 to 2009, leading his country to EU accession in 2007 (see background).
Speaking to a small group of journalists this morning (25 November), Stanishev didn't hide the fact that he was "surprised" when Rasmussen recently called him to recommend the job. He said that his new task would be a "big challenge", as his predecessor had left a deep mark behind him, transforming PES from a union of parties gathering occasionally into "a real European party".
But Stanishev made it plain that he would not give up national politics. His BSP party did surprisingly well in the presidential elections, winning 47.4% of the vote.
As Stanishev described, the ruling centre-right party GERB of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov had enrolled most media to campaign for its presidential candidate, and fraud and vote buying were widely reported.
Asked by EURACTIV what his priorities would be, Stanishev said his first commitment was to the Bulgarian party.
Challenges at home
Apparently, the BSP leader counts on his new international post to strengthen his positions at home, where he is challenged by different quarters.
"For me BSP is a real cause. Several years ago, when we were neither member of the Socialist International, nor of PES, it was almost a dream to work in a way to reform the party, to modernise it, so it would be a member of these families. And we achieved it. In 2003 we became members of SI and in 2005 of PES," Stanishev said.
Indeed, in 2001, when Stanishev became leader of BSP, most opponents called his party "the former Communists". His election as PES president appears to signal that such a stereotype cannot be recycled any longer.
"Honestly I couldn't dream at that time that a Bulgarian could become president of the PES. This is a big signal," Stanishev said.
He added that by electing a person from an eastern country sends a message: "We don't accept Europe of different speeds, of different circles, a Europe which is governed by two or three countries who take the decisions".
In his acceptance speech Thursday night, Stanishev stressed that he would fight for the value of democracy, which he said was under threat in Europe. He blasted the centre-right European People's Party for taking on board any political groups, provided they were politically strong at home. In particular, he referred to the declining democracy standards in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, but also Italy.
Asked to comment on the EPP acceptance of undemocratic practices by ruling parties in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, he said, alluding to a phrase once used by a US official about controversial Cold War allies: "They are bastards, but our bastards".
Looking at the European elections
The PES Council that elected Stanishev also adopted a plan to democratically choose the next European Commission president through primary elections in all 27 countries. Nominations will be open throughout October 2013, the list of candidates will be made public the next month. In December, an internal selection procedure will take place with each affiliated party, and in February 2014 an extraordinary PES congress will convene to ratify the election of a single candidate, ahead of the European elections due in June 2014.
Rasmussen made no secret of the fact that the European Socialists wanted to avoid the embarrassment from being split over the election of José Manuel Barroso for a second term at the helm of the EU Commission in 2009, without having an alternative candidate.