European Socialist Congress kick-starts EU elections campaign

, by Louise Olander

All the versions of this article: [English] [français] [svenska]

European Socialist Congress kick-starts EU elections campaign
Frans Timmermans surrounded by socialist leaders after his speech to the Party of European Socialists Congress on 8 December. Photo: PES Communications // Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On 7 to 8 December, the Party of European Socialists (PES) met in Lisbon for its 11th annual congress, with participants from 56 countries reportedly in attendance. The Congress marked the beginning of the socialists’ campaign ahead of the 2019 European elections. What is the PES’s focus for 2019, and how will it challenge the centre-right?

Eight resolutions for Europe’s future

The main event at the PES Congress was the adoption of eight resolutions, from which the party will develop its 2019 election manifesto. The resolutions are wide in scope and, unsurprisingly, cover classic social-democratic issues like Social Europe, gender equality and a shift to a more progressive economy. In addition, the resolutions emphasise policies for healthy environment and food, green growth and modern industry, as well as democracy, a fair and progressive asylum and migration policy, youth empowerment and, on the global stage, “a fair, sustainable, peaceful and prosperous world”.

European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, lead coordinator of the PES resolutions, declared that they would “make Europe a fairer, freer and more sustainable place” after a decade of conservative rule under the European People’s Party (EPP).

While challenging the EPP’s centre-right dominance in European politics appears to be PES’s main priority, the threat of nationalism and the rise of forces on the extreme right will clearly also influence the socialists’ focus in 2019 – both PES President Sergei Stanishev and Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans emphasised the importance of safeguarding democracy and protecting European rule of law in their speeches to the Congress.

Frans Timmermans officially endorsed as Spitzenkandidat

Another highlight of the Congress was the official endorsement of Frans Timmermans as PES’s Spitzenkandidat, its lead candidate to become European Commission president after the elections. The endorsement came as no surprise, since it was already clear last month that no other socialist politician intended to stand against the Dutch commissioner. Reiterating the message of his previous speeches, Timmermans noted in his speech to the Congress that the upcoming elections will be a fight for the “soul of Europe”.

Timmermans, who as first vice-president of the European Commission has profiled himself as the defender of rule of law against the right-wing Polish government, urged European socialists and progressives to “adapt to a changing world” and underlined the importance of forging a new social contract with Europe’s citizens. He also stated that fighting for equality and rule of law would be cornerstones of his campaign.

Activists key part of strategy to gain votes

While support for the centre-left has declined in Europe in recent years, according to the latest polls, the socialists are nevertheless expected to gain 142 of the 705 seats in the European Parliament in 2019, thereby maintaining their position as the second biggest political group after the EPP (which is set to win 180 seats). It was revealed at the Congress that the PES campaign will rely heavily on activists to attract more voters - the plan is to train 15,000 activists through the so-called PES Campaign Academy before May 2019.

The next step for PES in the upcoming months will be to condense its eight resolutions into an election manifesto to be published in the spring. The challenge will be for PES to present a centre-left platform which clearly distinguishes it from other European party families (like Emmanuel Macron’s liberal alliance) which are eager to present themselves as Europe’s centre-progressive alternative, and then to effectively communicate this message across all EU countries.

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