Socialists’ Fading Influence Puts Sánchez And Scholz To The Test – Analysis


By Max Griera, Nick Alipour and Oliver Noyan

(EurActiv) — The European socialists kick off their EU election campaign in Rome on Saturday (2 March) in a less than jubilant mood: The party is losing its grip on power across Europe, with Germany and Spain the last important strongholds.

In 2022, socialist parties celebrated an unlikely comeback in Europe and seemed on an upward trajectory, in power in seven EU countries – just as many as the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) at the time.

After years of sliding in the polls, Social Democratic leaders were again in charge of Germany as well as all countries of Iberia and Scandinavia, plus Malta and Romania.

But the success wave was short-lived. 

Fast-forward two years and the tables have turned. While they are still projected to finish second in June’s European elections, they only have half the European leaders compared to the EPP.

The next stronghold likely to fall is Portugal, where Europe’s longest-serving socialist prime minister, António Costa, had to resign over a corruption scandal.

​​The Portuguese socialist party (PS/PES), having garnered an absolute majority in the 2022 elections with 120 seats, has now lost support and is head-to-head with the centre-right PSD (EPP) ahead of a snap election on 10 March.

The last heavyweights

Having lost its traditional voting base and struggling to find a common narrative, “European social democracy is in crisis today,” Jean-Michel De Waele, a political scientist at Brussels University, told Euractiv. 

The Socialists are still one of the most important forces in Europe, Christine Verger, vice-president of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank, noted. “However, the long-term prospects are not looking so good, as they have all but disappeared in France and are struggling in Italy.”

Costa’s resignation has been a particular blow, as he “was always supposed to become the Socialist standard-bearer in Europe,” Verger said. “Now they are lacking such a strong, untarnished leader,” she added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Spanish counterpart Pedro Sánchez are the only remaining Social Democratic figureheads in charge of large delegations.

However, both leaders are battered and besieged by trouble. Scholz’s unpopular rule has seen the SPD dwindle to a mere 14% in the polls, barely the third-most popular party in the country.

Meanwhile, Sánchez managed to get re-elected last year but is now at the mercy of Catalan separatists, who look set to make his minority government implode at any time. His election success also appears to be less linked to a cohesive socialist ideology and more to his ability to adapt. 

“Sánchez has been successful due to his pragmatism and ability to adapt to what the Spanish people want, like a chameleon,” De Waele said. 

Other countries ruled by the Socialists include Denmark and Romania, but in both cases, the parties are losing support in polls.

Identity crisis

Europe’s socialists have been in search of a new narrative for decades. A promising idea came from British Prime Minister Tony Blair who pitched a centrist, liberal approach, often dubbed the ‘Third Way’, as a new vision for socialist parties after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

But embracing this new identity came at a cost, with many of its advocates, like former French president François Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi, disappearing into political oblivion. 

Most notably, experts argue that the new agenda did not sit well with the social democrats’ traditional voter base, the working class. 

“Nowadays, many of [the working class] starkly disagree with the social democrats’ liberal views on migration. This is the core problem they need to address,” De Waele, told Euractiv.  

“In short, they need a new vision.” 

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen appears to have found such a magic formula in embracing tough migration policies, helping her recover some of Socialdemokratiet’s former working-class base.

Yet such a deviation from core left-wing principles found little support among her peers.

Ralf Stegner, an influential SPD MP and long-standing member of the party’s leadership board rejected the notion that such an “exemplary Nordic migration policy is a recipe for success”.

“It is obvious that a [small] country like Denmark faces completely different challenges when it comes to managing migration than we do,” he told Euractiv, adding that “solid values” and “clear language” were more promising.

The more authoritarian and populist brand of the Social Democratic parties ruling Romania and Slovakia has been similarly ostracised, with Slovakia’s Smer party even having its PES membership suspended last year.

Bulwark against the far right

However, the socialists are not alone in their struggle, “as all the big party families (…) are at risk of losing votes,” Verger stressed. “It looks like only the right will gain significantly.”

Cornered by shrinking polls, the German SPD and the Spanish PSOE have resorted to an existential narrative of “us versus them”, where they present themselves as the last defence against the far-right.  

“We have stopped the reactionary wave in Spain. And yes, we will stop the reactionary wave throughout Europe by winning the elections for the European Parliament,” Sánchez told a congress of the European Socialists in October. 

“We were the dike against which that reactionary wave crashed. And now it is a question of repeating it on 9 June in the European elections,” he added. 

The Spanish Socialists thus remain confident they can manage a turnaround in the upcoming elections.

“The only poll that is useful is the one at the ballot box, and there are still a few months to go before the European elections,” Javier Moreno, president of the Spanish Socialist delegation to the European Parliament, told Euractiv.

In a similar vein, the German SPD has made the fight against the far right and the defence of democracy one of their top priorities. 

“We reflect on our strengths by standing up for the working middle class in Germany and promoting democracy in Germany and the world,” Katarina Barley, the vice-president of the European Parliament and SPD’s lead candidate, told Euractiv. 

Despite the gloomy picture, hope is still flickering for the social democrats as SPD officials point to Scholz’s surprise success in 2021 as a defining experience.

“Nobody would have predicted [Scholz would be chancellor today] a few months before the last general election,” Stegner said. “Polls are fleeting.”


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