The plight of the European left is well known by now: despite the victory in Denmark a few months ago, the left has lost Spain, and now doesn't hold any of the 6 major Member States (the big 3 plus Italy, Spain and Poland). So does it have the ability to fight back and put forward a viable alternative political vision? The Party of European Socialists are holding a Re:New conference in Brussels (25th-26th November), with NGOs and Trade Union representatives present as well as activitists.
First of all, the PES have decided on their primaries for selecting their Commission President candidate for the next European elections (PDF; Ralf Grahn has already commented on this here). A good step for European democracy, as PES are now committed to fielding a candidate, whereas they failed to providean alternative to Barroso in 2009. However, it is still left to national political parties to decide wheather they will hold a direct vote with their members or indirectly consult them. This could have a big effect as the envisaged proportional voting (that the votes per member party are distributed proportionally among candidates rather than a first past the post system where candidates could win all the votes of a national party at the PES level) could be undermined if few parties adopt direct votes. Political pressure through example by more democratic parties seems to be the hope behind this compromise. Still, it commits the PES to a more European campaign centred around winning power in the Commission.
So does there seem to be a PES alternative to the European EPP majority?
Probably not, if you consider a proper alternative to be a coherent policy platform. Though the PES seems to be fairly united around Eurobonds and the financial transaction tax (although UK Labour's Emma Reynolds looked a bit uncomfortable as she defended the Conservative-led government's position that an FTT would have to be global as the Labour party's own position), there doesn't seem to be a fully thought through programme yet. Added to this difficulty is the leftwards drift of the EPP (which can be seen by Barroso's SOTEU speech and the increasing promotion of Eurobonds and FTTs in right-wing circles). While the PES can berate the EPP and "Merkozy" for being too little, too late at every turn, it does not make up for the lack of a concrete plan. Not that the EPP has a plan, but if the left wants to well, it has to earn it rather than hope to profit from anti-incumbant votes.
The first workshop I attended was "Progressive Policy Responses to the Crisis". Apart from Eurobonds and FTT, barely any policy was mentioned. The failings of the right and the need for closer European integration were highlighted, but a lot of the hope for the left seems to be based on the French and German elections even though there's a recognition that the crisis is so urgent that key political questions need to be addressed quickly. Implicitly this means that it's up to a leftwing Merkozy, replacing our conservative one, to help solve the crisis, rather than attempt to provide a European leftwing platform in the meantime (and after all, what better time is there for the PES to articulate a vision if not when the left is in opposition and Europe is on everyone's lips?).
In terms of immediate policy, the only relevant contribution was from Walter Cerfada, who put forward 3 chages for the next EU budget: 1. that structural funds should be made available to the economically weaker nations without the requirements for co-funding when the money does not exist at a national level; 2. that this budget plans for the 2013 budget too so governments can make longer-term plans; 3. that the European Investment Bank quickly starts to invest more.
The audience very quickly picked up on the lack of policy content and a very challenging question was posed: if the PES has little power within the EU institutions, why don't the PES Commissioners resign in protest at EPP policies? There wasn't really an answer. If PES leave the Commission, then it would mean something else for their Commission presidential campaign too: that the PES would believe that the Commission should be politically coherent (and closer to the EP), not just the Commission President.
George Papandreou was actually one of the best speakers at the conference so far. The PES seem to be good at generating vision, but has problems communicating that vision nationally, and putting together practical policies (at least as far as I can tell from this conference so far). Is this a problem of organisation - is the PES too national? What organisational developments are needed or are taking place to make the PES more effective? Hopefully I can find out some more over the next day.