European socialists

Romania's centre-left prime minister, Victor Ponta

Just how should the EU react when a leader in a country like Romania threatens to undermine the democratic principles the entire European project stands for? Apparently it depends on what political party the accused underminer hails from.

Last year, when the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – whose Fidesz party is a member of the EU’s centre-right political grouping, the European People’s Party – rammed through his parliament a controversial media law critics believed granted him overweening powers to mute press critics, the Socialists & Democrats – the EU’s centre-left group – were outraged.

“We cannot allow Hungary or any other government to drive a coach and horses through the fundamental values of the European Union,” insisted German MEP Martin Schultz, then the head of the S&D group in the European parliament.

Now, Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta – whose Social Democratic party is a member of the S&D group – has moved to impeach his political rival, centre-right president Traian Basescu; fired the country’s ombudsman; and curtailed the powers of the constitutional court. How has the S&D responded? 

France's Hollande and Germany's Merkel at the Nato summit in Chicago earlier this week

Ahead of today’s informal EU summit in Brussels, senior officials have been repeatedly warning that no decisions will be taken. Indeed, no communiqué has even been circulated among national delegations, so the dinner is likely to wrap with only a press statement from Herman Van Rompuy, the evening’s host.

Even though Van Rompuy in his letter to leaders has emphasised the informal nature of the session, Europe’s two largest party groupings – the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Party of European Socialists – will both hold pre-summit caucuses starting in the late afternoon.

In the past, the EPP gathering was the more significant affair, with almost every major EU leader (Van Rompuy, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Eurogroup chair Jean-Claude Juncker) and leaders from the largest eurozone countries (France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) all regular attendees.

At one point, the PES became something of a caucus of the damned, with only Greece’s George Papandreou, Portugal’s José Socrates and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as centre-left leaders in attendance. Like so much in Europe these days, the French presidential elections have changed all that. 

In today’s paper, my Berlin-based colleagues Quentin Peel and Gerrit Wiesman note that it’s been a bad week for the eurozone’s most high-profile centre-right leaders: Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy both saw their parties trounced in regional elections, and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was back in court.

But what remains unclear is whether the traditional centre-left can capitalise on the faltering conservatives. If recent evidence is any indication, it’s not a clear-cut trade-off at all. Indeed, in eurozone countries where governments have either recently fallen or are likely to do so soon – Ireland, Portugal and Finland – centre-right parties are ascendant. 

It is a pre-summit tradition in Brussels for the heads of state to divide up and huddle with their fellow partisan big-wigs for a few hours before the main event. The idea is that they are “coordinating their positions” – although one suspects they are probably trading gossip. 

The big excitement this afternoon will be at the gathering of the centre-right European People’s Party in a suburb outside Brussels. The expected attendees include the European Union’s heaviest heavyweights – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, to name a few.

Back in town – and just down the road from the Council building – a handful of Liberal Democrat leaders will congregate, including Ireland’s Brian Cowen, the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Finland’s Mari Kiviniemi. 

But one group has called off its pre-summit powwow this time around. That would be the Socialists. A party spokesman said the group had taken the decision because its leaders met just last week at their party conference in Warsaw. Instead, they will make do with a simple pre-summit conference call. 

With a mere 27 members (all European heads of state or government, admittedly), the electorate that will pick the European Union’s first full-time president and new foreign policy high representative is even smaller than the conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals that chooses a new pope.  But this isn’t stopping other European busybodies from trying to muscle in on the decision.

Take the main political groups in the European Parliament, for example.  They have no formal say in the matter whatsoever.  Nonetheless, the parliament’s socialist group appears confident that it has an informal understanding with the centre-right European People’s Party that the full-time EU presidency should go to a EPP politician and the foreign policy post should go to a socialist.