The decision of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz to return to national politics came as a “relief” for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) who now have their hands free to forge alliances with political parties on the left, S&D sources told EURACTIV in Strasbourg.
After losing the battle for the presidency of the European Parliament to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) on Tuesday (17 January), the S&D group is now seeking new alliances to balance the dominance of right-wing parties in the EU Assembly.
EPP candidate Antonio Tajani won the presidency thanks to support from the liberal ALDE group, which is traditionally pro-European, and Eurosceptic parties from the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR), which are led by the British Conservatives and Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS).
Gianni Pittella, the S&D candidate who lost the race for the presidency, announced before the vote that the “grand coalition” between his party and the centre-right EPP was now over and would not be restored after the vote.
The terms of the grand coalition were initially signed by Martin Schulz and Manfred Weber, a German Christian-Democrat, closely mirroring the governing coalition in power in Berlin.
Several S&D sources told EURACTIV that Schulz was instrumental in holding the grand coalition together, and prevented the socialists from taking an ideological leap to the left.
“The departure of Martin Schulz relieved the vast majority of S&D MEPs as we now have the opportunity for self-determination,” a German Social-Democrat MEP told EURACTIV.
The group, he added, is now considering alliances with parties on the left of the political spectrum, citing the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) and the Greens/European Free Alliance.
A progressive coalition
EURACTIV reported in September that a leftist coalition was underway and that the alliance between the EPP and S&D was coming to an end due to growing disagreements over a number of topics, like austerity policies and the handling of the migration crisis.
Another reason behind the S&D’s decision to terminate the “grand coalition” is to halt the rise of the extreme-right. Many socialists believe that the rise of populism across Europe can be attributed to weak opposition during the times of the grand coalition.
But now that the EPP has taken control of Parliament, with backing from the ECR and liberal ALDE grops, the much-discussed alliance is ready to be formed.
“We have entered a new phase where a conservative coalition has been formed between the EPP and ECR,” sources said, referring to the European Conservatives and Reformist group, led by the British Conservatives.
The source added that the group’s objective now is to form an opposition coalition with progressive powers, such as GUE/NGL and the Greens.
“It’s not our intention to block the legislative procedure,” the S&D official said. “We want to play a constructive role but first we need to consult with progressive powers,” he added, saying the objective is to create a “structured coordination” between political groups on the left.
EURACTIV learned that an exchange of letters took place last week between the S&D and the GUE/NGL, in which the creation of an “anti-austerity platform” was thoroughly discussed.
“We are kingmakers”
The socialists claim that the new conservative alliance does not have an absolute majority to pass legislation and will therefore “knock on our door for support”.
The European Commission will also find a “less homogeneous” Parliament after the election, making it harder to find a majority, the socialists believe.
“They cannot legislate on Brexit or migration without us. We cannot imagine a scenario where they will get backed by the anti-Europeans,” a source said, referring to the traditionally pro-European stance of the EPP and ALDE.
“We are kingmakers for the European Commission as well, they have to come through us to pass legislation,” a socialist MEP said.
Angry with Verhofstadt
Socialist sources also said trust has been broken with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
S&D deputies blame the Belgian MEP for the outcome of the vote, saying he is “responsible for the right-wing turn of the Parliament”.
“He treated us in a very harsh way,” an S&D source said, remarking that Verhofstadt’s stance was still considered neutral the day before the vote for the new president of the European Parliament.
The European leftists are also angry with Verhofstadt, saying he had promised GUE/NGL MEPs he would not to drop out of the Parliament race.
S&D/Greens alliance hangs on EU-Canada trade deal
When it comes to a potential alliance between the S&D and the Greens/EFA, cooperation will largely depend on finding a common stance on CETA, the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada.
Green MEPs have presented a parliamentary motion for CETA to be examined by judges at the European Court of Justice. They believe there is legal uncertainty as to whether the proposed trade deal is compatible with certain parts of the EU Treaty.
Asked whether the S&D group intends to back this challenge, a socialist source replied: “We are open to discussion but the group must first debate and decide.”
He also flatly rejected rumours that Pittella was asked to step down after his defeat, saying that not a single national delegation had raised the issue.