Social democratic parties in the most populous EU countries have been trudging through stagnant water for the last ten years, and will certainly keep struggling in the next decade too unless a game-changer occurs. That game-changer could go by the name of Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s current prime minister, and it involves his attempt to revolutionize Spain’s approach towards migration.
Since the end of the 1990s, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have been surrounded by fences to protect Spain’s territorial integrity and expressly to keep migrants out. During the last seven years of Rajoy government, the attitude toward the issue was not exactly an example of light touch regulation, and Spain became infamously known for its firm-handed migration policy, which has led to frequent riots and skirmishes between the Spanish police and migrants trying to breach the fences.
But now things are about to change. Recently, Spain’s new prime minister pledged, during an Onda Cero radio broadcast, that his government is willing to remove the razor wire fences from both Ceuta and Melilla, thus shifting the Madrid’s approach to the migration phenomenon. This could be a turning point for Sanchez’s Party, the PSOE, and ultimately for the future of social democracy in the European Union.
However, the match could go either way.
According to the political scientist Ernst Hillebrand, alongside with terrorism and the economic crisis, migration is one of the main political issues of the second millennium and the stumbling block against which the flimsy waves of European center-left parties crashed themselves during recent electoral campaigns. The inability of traditional center-left forces to address the migration issue and offer an alternative proposal to the far-right narrative on this topic has been the iceberg that has led to the sinking of the far and moderate left vessels across the EU. Two vivid examples of this powerlessness are the trajectories of both the Italian Democratic Party and the French Socialist Party during the most recent elections (2018 in Italy, 2017 in France). The former obtained a dispiriting result (18.8% of the votes), losing almost 8% from previous elections and 185 seats in the Chambers of Deputies, while the latter suffered an electoral nightmare, taking in a total of 7.44% of the vote in legislative elections and 6.36% in presidential ones, falling from the 10 million votes obtained by Francois Hollande in 2012 to just 2 million votes for Benoît Hamon in 2017. Both parties bore the brunt of dissatisfaction toward the outgoing government, but they paid an even higher price due to their inability to structurally address the migration phenomenon in a more concrete fashion. These potential votes were siphoned away in favor of the far-right and/or populist forces.
Compared to these two parties, the PSOE and Pedro Sanchez have a major advantage: they know where the iceberg is and what it is made of. Nonetheless they will still need to identify the proper route to circumnavigate it with little or no damage and bring the ship safely back to the harbor. Metaphors aside, this means that ‘Pedro el Guapo’ and his socialist crew will have to find an alternative proposal to address the issue, one that goes beyond the leftist “everybody is welcome” and, at the same time, must reject the usual far-right storytelling. A proposal that calls at the same time for burden sharing, EU solidarity mechanism, and refugee quotas on a mandatory (not voluntary) basis, as well as long-term solutions, flow control, development aid, and EU political efforts toward the stability of both the Mediterranean and the Sub-Saharan regions.
All in all, the future of the EU social democratic parties very likely depends on how the PSOE addresses the migration issue. In the next European elections, scheduled for May 2019, the Spanish Socialist Party will only aspire to the 59 Spanish seats at the European Parliament. Nonetheless, should they be able to find by that time an innovative compromise proposal on migration, the other European center-left forces will very possibly replicate the PSOE model and benefit from an encouraging spill-over effect, thus reverting the negative trends they have experienced so far. Should the Spanish socialists fail at finding such a compromise, they will gradually disappear from the political map, as has happened to other socialist and center-left parties, thus wasting the very last chance for social democracy in the EU to survive.
Suerte Pedro; you are going to need it.
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