11th Dec 2023


Malaga conference sees socialist 'happy warriors' still divided

  • Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez and German chancellor Olaf Scholz had significant policy differences to discuss. (Photo: PES Communications)
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The European socialists have had a rough year.

The nationalist far-right is in power in six European countries. In another six, they are polling high, and rightwing parties are similarly projected to win big in the 2024 European elections.

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  • Hundreds of people gathered in Málaga to protest against Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez's offer of clemency to Catalans who made push for independence in 2017 (Photo: Wester van Gaal)

So, a lot hinged on the Party of the European Socialists (PES) showing unity and strength at their yearly congress in Málaga this weekend.

German chancellor Olaf Sholz was the most prominent social-democratic leader attending the gathering, which included Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen and Romanian prime minister Marcel Ciolacu.

But it was the host, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez, who captured the spotlight after at the last-minute securing the support he needed to stay in power for another term.

"Sanchez is saving his country from the extreme right," EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told party delegates, capturing the mood.

"This triumph is not exclusive to Spanish progressives. It is a triumph for all progressives in Europe," Sanchez later said during his speech.

But the sense of combative optimism was slightly marred by the angry crowd of protestors standing outside the Trade Fairs and Congress Center of Málaga — a budget Frank Gehry approximation — who, angry over Sanchez's pact with the Catalan separatists, served as a reminder that his victory was achieved only by the narrowest of margins.

Further dampening the mood was the recent shock resignation of Portugal's socialist prime minister, António Costa, after police detained his chief of staff last week as part of a corruption probe into possible acts of malfeasance over a lithium concession and a green hydrogen project.

Although Costa himself has not been "accused of anything" and "resigned to protect the [legal] process", according to the president of the Socialists and Democrats Iratxe García Pérez, his resignation does pose a major dilemma, as the S&D group had their hopes pinned on him becoming president of the EU Council after the upcoming election.


In theory, socialists should be doing great. Issues such as the high cost of living and a shortage of housing, where the left has traditionally been strong, are top of the agenda in most countries.

"The drama in housing is universal in Europe, and it is totally impossible for young people" said Pérez, which, according to prevailing PES logic, fuels uncertainty in an already uncertain world.

"I believe that people want a bright future. They want to have solutions. They don't want to have fear. It is our responsibility to give those answers," said Nasima Razmyar, vice chair of the Finnish Social Democratic party.

Instead, she warned the far-right has been capitalising on the uncertainty "using wrong, very wrong, tactics."

There may not be one easy explanation for why that is. What is clear is that the far-right has been able to coalesce around easy-to-understand nationalist, anti-migrant messaging generally.

In contrast, socialists have seemed far more divided, with muddled messaging on economics and geopolitics.

Described as "a key step towards a common socialist and democratic manifesto", party delegates unanimously adopted the 2023 resolution on Friday (10 November). But major issues in the party programme remain unresolved.

A case in point is Europe's fiscal rules. While the progressive governments of Spain and Portugal have called for more leeway in spending rules to allow for more investment, Scholz has supported strict fiscal limits championed by his finance minister Christian Lindner, from the governing coalition's neo-liberal Free Democrats. Lindner has become Europe's most vocal and unrelenting fiscal hardliner.

Socialist economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni has similarly supported a new EU European Sovereignty Fund to help less wealthy member countries increase climate and social investments. But this plan has been gutted in the council, chiefly at the behest of Scholz's government.

So, while the resolution pushes for more investment, it is unclear how that will pan out if the less wealthy members are refused access to the finance they need by their own party colleagues.

Particularly painful was the inability of the socialist group to reach a common position on current events in Israel and Palestine.

The Spanish delegation wanted stronger human rights language in the resolution and a call on all parties in the conflict to respect international law.

But German negotiators have blocked this, to the chagrin of Irish socialists who went further with the Spanish and wanted a ceasefire call.

Sanchez, in a speech on Saturday, also called for a "humanitarian ceasefire," but Scholz rejected the notion and reiterated that Israel had the right to defend itself and "defeat Hamas."

Thus, the issue that could arguably have benefited the most from a clear socialist position instead didn't make it to the page.


Optimism seemed to be the agreed-upon solution to paint over the dividing lines. "We need to be happy warriors," said EU Green Deal commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, also telling delegates that "these elections are about saving the Green Deal."

While doing so, we "should not only focus on catastrophe. We need to bring in positivity. That is our job: to show people there are opportunities to be had," said EU commissioner for jobs and social rights Nicolas Schmidt.

"We need to remember that social and ecological improvements improve people's lives," said Spain's environment minister, Teresa Ribera. "We need to create climate-proof wealth."

The first test will be for Frans Timmermans, the S&D former EU heavyweight and ex-Green Deal commissioner who is leading the ticket for the Green-Left alliance in the Dutch elections on 22 November, a race he is currently polling third in.


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