Rodrigo Vaz / Jul 2023
Robert Fico, the leader of the Slovak S&D-affiliated Smer party. Photo: Shutterstock
It is impossible to find complete unity in any of the political groups in the European Union (EU). However, the Party of European Socialists (PES) needs to find a minimally coherent message if it wants to deliver an appealing narrative across the continent.
European political parties, as well as corresponding political groups in the European Parliament, are necessarily heterogeneous. In a community with nearly 500 million members and such a diverse political history, this is not only unavoidable, but also healthy. It is a natural consequence of democracy that the composition of the national body politic differs strongly from Member State to Member State, with those differences finding echo in European election results.
That being said, there is a reason why European political parties exist. First, there are practical considerations: a parliament with 705 members would simply not be able to function if each elected representative were atomised, or even if MEPs were to mirror all their respective national groups. More importantly, however, practicality is not the main reason why European political parties exist—otherwise we would have many more tactical and short-term alliances rather than established groups. Political groups exist based on a shared political affinity. Parties unite on the basis of a common political objective and the will to carry it forward.
Finally, European parties play a role, minor but not insignificant, in projecting European ideals and the EU project beyond current Union borders. For proof, look no further than ALDE, the party behind the Renew Europe political group, adding Ukraine President Zelenskyy’s party, Servant of the People, to its ranks. As best put by Benjamin Fox, “if the pan-European parties didn’t matter, then parties would not be clamouring to join them.”
For years, the PES played a leading role in EU politics. In 1999, 10 of the 15 members of the European Council belonged to the centre-left. That position would come under increasing challenge in the subsequent years, but still, during the 8th parliamentary term (2009-2014), for instance, the PES was the only political group with representatives from all then-28 Member States. Over the last few years, however, the PES’s political representation has been visibly dwindling. Why is that?
Surely, there are multiple reasons, different (national) contexts and wide academic literature on the reasons why, including on why the centre-left performs poorly in CEE, relative to the rest of the community. But one aspect seems to surface most of all: there is a lack of ideological clarification on the European centre-left. In other words, the glue that binds these different national parties is coming loose.
Political divisions on the centre-left have existed before. Just this century, there have been multiple times when centre-left parties found themselves on opposite sides of an issue, whether it be the Iraq War or the Eurozone crisis. However, this time, the divisions are fully contradictory, and worse, they strike at the heart of European ideals.
The PES has taken an unequivocal line against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many of its member parties, particularly in the East of the EU, have been far more ambiguous. Robert Fico, the leader of the Slovak S&D-affiliated Smer party, has gone as far as inviting the Russian ambassador to speak during the celebration of the Slovak National Uprising. Mr Fico has taken an even more confrontational and populist tone since a split in his party led to the creation of Hlas, which looks to dispute the same electorate. In Bulgaria, the Socialist Party has shown “particular opposition” to the sanctions against Russia, adopting what can be at best described as a dubious approach.
Some of these parties have paid a steep price for this equivocal position. In Latvia, the S&D-affiliated Harmony party recorded an especially spectacular fall: having been the-most voted party in the 2018 elections, last year, they plummeted below the national threshold after — you guessed it — refusing to back sanctions against Russia, casting doubts on their allegiances. In the Czech Republic, 2021 marked the first time the Social Democrats were voted out of parliament after a barrage of controversies having to do with the coalition led by Andrej Babiš, who went on to lose the presidential elections while relying on populist, Orbán-inspired rhetoric.
Beyond EU territory, S&D-affiliated parties have acted in full contradiction to the political hemisphere they claim to represent: most notably, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, the leader of Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, recently took to the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest. The joke writes itself.
Some encouraging signs point to a reflection already taking place at national and European level. The German SPD, which long held the belief that cooperation and increased trade with Russia would result in democracy and human rights being respected, has recently taken the courageous step to face their mistakes and change course. In response to the Georgian PM publicly spousing Trump-style conservatism, PES VP Kati Piri has announced that the Party will review the status of the Georgian Dream party within PES.
European parties are not—and should not become—top-down structures. National parties have all the legitimacy to take the political choices they deem necessary, and each national context is different. However, European parties are an agglomeration of national parties who unite because they share common political beliefs. There are past examples, both on the centre-left and elsewhere, where parties were not admitted due to ideological differences. The Party of European Socialists has always stood against populist, anti-democratic rhetoric and the Russian aggression in Ukraine. That commitment cannot waver. To defend two opposing ideas is to defend none at all.