Struggles for Europe’s centre left

By Barry Colfer
11 May 2018
Germany Germany
Udo Bullmann takes the reins of the S&D group at a challenging moment
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Olaf Kosinsky /

Italy’s recent general election may not have produced a government (yet), but it did produce a vacancy at the top of the second largest group in the European Parliament. On 7 March, Gianni Pitella of the Italian Partito Democratico (PD), who had been head of the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D group) since 2014, announced his departure from the European Parliament, having won a seat in the Italian senate. Two candidates vied for the succession – German SPD MEP Udo Bullmann, and the Belgian MEP, from the Flemish sp.a, Kathleen Van Brempt.

In the election on 20 March, Bullmann defeated Van Brempt by 86 votes to 61. Another obvious option for leader was the Portuguese Maria João Rodrigues, who serves as vice-president of the group, and who was elected president of FEPS (the Foundation for European Progressive Studies – the PES think tank) in 2017. Rodrigues might have done well had she competed, but may have had too much going on to put her name forward this time around, and remains one to watch for the future.

Upon being elected, Bullmann declared that he was ‘honoured to win the trust’ of his group, and will now lead the S&D into the European elections in May 2019, which are likely to pose the biggest electoral test progressives have faced, since direct elections to the European Parliament were introduced in 1979. Bullmann has vowed to ‘bring social democracy back to full strength’, while acknowledging the ‘epochal transformations our civilisation is faced with’, and name-checking the need to turn the ’sustainability challenge, globalisation and disruptive digitalisation’ into ‘drivers for positive change, quality jobs, and wellbeing for all’.

In Brussels, Bullmann is seen as a strong communicator, and is good at building bridges within the diverse S&D group, which hasn’t been immune to infighting and factionalism. ‘Bullmann speaks as a true European, and not as a German’, a well-placed insider remarked. A political scientist by training, and an expert in economic and monetary union, Bullmann is a member of the parliament’s powerful Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) Committee, and is on the left of the SPD. This was made particularly clear in the wake of the financial crisis, as Bullmann was one of the loudest voices within the SPD to call for solidarity with Greece, and with the beleaguered and indebted European south during the Eurozone crisis. Bullmann is the SPD’s spokesperson on European affairs on the party’s executive committee, and will contribute to the preparation for the SPD position for the 2019 elections. However, he is perhaps best understood as an interim S&D leader, and is unlikely to be a high profile figure in advance of the 2019 poll, after which he will likely be replaced – if the group survives the election in its current form.

Indeed, in 2018 the S&D is staring into the abyss. The group is expected to haemorrhage seats in 2019, and is likely to return with a serious chunk taken out of its current 190 seats (in the current 751 seat legislature, which is likely to be reduced to 705 in 2019, following the UK’s withdrawal). The S&D is faced with the double whammy of the collapse in electoral support for centre-left parties throughout Europe, and the departure of the UK Labour Party delegation and its 20 MEPs following the Brexit vote. The Italian PD, currently the largest delegation in the Group, having won 31 seats and 40 per cent of the Italian vote in 2014, and Bullmann’s own German SPD, who together have formed the backbone of the group in recent years, are all expected to sustain losses, as are the Spanish and French socialists, and President Macron’s La Republique en Marche movement is expected to further hit the number of MEPs elected by the French PS. Taken together, these challenges undermine the viability of the group itself.

On top of this, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group (currently Parliament’s largest group, with 216 members) are expected to do well in 2019, and may benefit from the realignment of the groups on the right following the departure of Britain’s UKIP and Conservative party delegations. The EPP group will also not lose any MEPs from Brexit, given that the UK Conservatives left the group in 2009. This will likely make the grand coalition between the S&D and EPP groups, which has held sway for much of the current parliament, unworkable in the new parliamentary term.

What’s more, in 2018, there are only five S&D-affiliated (i.e. PES) prime ministers left in Europe – which includes the beleaguered prime ministers of Malta and Slovakia, (both mired in domestic political controversies), Italy, where the PD remains in office only until a new government is formed which is unlikely to include the party, and the leaders of Portugal and Sweden. This compares with a high point in 1998 when a smaller EU boasted eleven PES prime ministers on the European Council, when Blair, Prodi and Schröder all coincided. Increasingly, prime ministers António Costa (Portugal) and Stefan Löfven (Sweden) seem isolated, on a European Council that is dominated by the EPP and the centrist-ALDE group.

For the EU itself, Bullmann’s election sees another middle-aged German male taking a senior EU post, which also raises questions about the recent trend of disproportionate spoils going to the EU’s biggest member. Bullmann’s opposite number in the EPP is (the German) Manfred Weber, and (the also German) Martin Selmayr, erstwhile of Jean Claude Juncker’s cabinet, now holds the position of chief bureaucrat in the European Commission.

So, it is uncontroversial to say that Bullmann takes the helm at an extremely difficult moment for the battered and bruised S&D group, and for European social democracy more generally. But progressives and social democrats can still take encouragement from Bullmann’s election.  This relative low point can be seen as an opportunity for progressives to regroup, and to decide what centre-left politics is about, and what purpose it can serve, as Europe turns from austerity. Bullmann has the experience and the ability to position the S&D Group as a broad, aggressive exponent of progress in direct response to the shrill populist Eurosceptic voices in Parliament that look increasingly rudderless, given the disastrous start to the Brexit negotiations. Someone has to have the courage to call for a more coherent, more progressive Europe. Progressives can hold some hope that Bullmann will be up to the task, in advance of the massive electoral tests in 2019.