Italians have taken to polls this weekend to vote in what many are considering to be a test not only the for their country, but also for the future of Europe. This election has proven to be a test not only for the ruling center-left Democratic Party, but also for populist parties, such as the Northern League or Forza Italia, whose momentum has grown apparent throughout the course of this campaign. More importantly, these elections have also opened up a broader question, one that has no bearing on who will form Italy’s next government: who will chair the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrat (S&D) in the European Parliament?
The future of the S&D is of great importance for how the European Parliament (EP) will work in the next years. As the second largest group in the EP, and the only one to have MEPs from all 28 member states, the S&D represents social-democratic parties across Europe. Their center-left ideologies have been a driving force in Europe for decades, promoting progressive ideas of equality both socially and economically, all the while advocating for a number of pro-European policies. However, national social democratic parties from Germany to France to Romania have been plagued by poor leadership and scandals. The S&D is the continent-wide version of a challenged ideology. The task of the next leader is therefore a great one: guiding its MEPs in re-establishing trust in the values of social democracy, while contending with challenges from far-right Eurosceptic parties that power in the upcoming European elections of 2019.
This role was previously held by Gianni Pittella, a heavyweight member of the European Parliament since 1999, and one of the most respected and prominent figures in the institution. In January of this year, however, Pittella announced his plans to run in the Italian elections in response to a direct invitation from former prime minister and Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi. This was a move which many MEPs felt discouraged by, especially since it was only a year ago that the S&D started to voice its intentions to ‘fight’ for control of major European institutions, ending their longstanding coalition with the European People’s Party, and eschewing shared agreements for the rotation of leadership positions.
Pittella did not immediately leave his post as MEP. He left the option open for a return in the event that his candidacy in Italy proves unsuccessful. Even in the unlikely event that he fails to win a seat, the chances of his return to chairing the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats seem slim. Officially, S&D has named only an interim chair; on paper, Pittella is still the group’s leader until his official resignation. Yet, as the weeks have passed, speculation has grown about who will succeed him, making it clear that an easy return to the helm may not be so straightforward.
Two options emerged as the frontrunners in the struggle for S&D’s leadership: Udo Bullmann of Germany and Elena Valenciano of Spain. Bullmann, who was elected as interim leader following Pittella’s announcement, was initially seen as the obvious choice for the job. His election, however, might prove problematic. For one, another member of the German delegation would become a powerful leader in the European Parliament, joining Manfred Weber, Ska Keller, and Gabi Zimmer, who are already leading political factions of the Parliament. Furthermore, many saw an opportunity for a woman to take over the reins, likely as a result of recent social movements highlighting sexual harassment, discrimination, and unequal treatment. Considering 2019 will be an election year for the European Parliament, any detail could make a difference. Many delegations in the S&D believe Valenciano to be more appealing in garnering support come election day.
Valenciano’s main obstacles appear to have come from within her own Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Pedro Sanchez, PSOE’s leader, has stated that while he intends to fight for his party to win the leadership of S&D in the European Parliament after 2019, he does not support any bid for Valenciano to take over the position. While this party infighting can be damaging, Sanchez does make a strong point: if the S&Ds underperform in the European election next year, whoever leads the party will likely be forced to resign. Using the political capital necessary to secure Valenciano’s election could be a risk not worth taking. Many from the PSOE, disapprove of Sanchez’s decision to not back Valenciano, who is a respected figure among female politicians of left-wing orientation.
With this infighting likely to leave Valenciano out in the cold, Udo Bullmann has a chance to regain any support lost since the beginning of February, and position himself as the obvious choice for chair of the S&D. After all, few are likely to back a leader who doesn’t have the support of her national party. Gianni Pittella’s decision to stand in the Italian election is felt not only in his home country, where there is a direct impact, but also among his peers in the European Parliament and increasingly within national parties as well. With these repercussions, which will no doubt be talked about until the 2019 elections, only one thing is left for certain: Pittella’s decision earned him no new friends.