European socialists elect Nicolas Schmit as lead candidate to face off against Ursula von der Leyen

Nicolas Schmit has been elected the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES).
Nicolas Schmit has been elected the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Copyright Alessandra Tarantino/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro in Rome
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The Party of European Socialists (PES) has elected Nicolas Schmit as its lead candidate for the EU elections amid worries of a far-right surge.

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Schmit, the current European Commissioner for jobs and social rights, received the mandate by acclamation on Saturday afternoon at the end of the party's congress in Rome. The 70-year-old politician from Luxembourg led the internal race uncontested, as he was the only name put forward.

"We will not allow that Europe will take the path of austerity and social repression as it did during the financial crisis. This is the main argument, this why we want to win these elections, together, in all 27 member states," Schmit told the audience at La Nuvola, on the outskirts of Rome, as he took the stage surrounded by young activists.

"I want voters to know that social democrats will keep fighting for all citizens and will respect their commitments and promises."

As a result, Schmit will face off against his boss, Ursula von der Leyen, the lead candidate of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

Both are part of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, under which the parties that take part in the elections to the European Parliament are supposed to select a top aspirant to preside the European Commission, the bloc's most powerful and influential institution. Some groups follow the template, while others choose to ignore it.

The upcoming race, however, will be deeply uneven: Ursula von der Leyen is the indisputable frontrunner thanks to the strong reputation she has built throughout her first mandate at the Commission's held, from which she spearheaded transformational policies to cope with climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis and China's assertive behaviour.

Schmit, for his part, has kept a low profile since his arrival in Brussels in 2019, when von der Leyen assigned him the portfolio of jobs and social rights. Among his most notable projects were the launch of a €100-billion programme for short-time work schemes during the coronavirus lockdowns and a directive to ensure minimum wages are set at "adequate levels." His proposal to improve the conditions of platform workers, those who service apps like Uber, Deliveroo and Glovo, is currently stuck in negotiations among member states and is close to plunging into limbo.

Schmit's cabinet is one of the teams overseeing the freezing of EU funds for Hungary over persistent rule-of-law deficiencies. The Commissioner faced the ire of the Parliament after the executive released €10.2 billion in cohesion funds for Budapest, despite the antagonistic attitude of Viktor Orbán, and pleas by civil society. As of today, Hungary is still denied access to roughly €21 billion in cohesion and recovery funds.

Speaking before the PES top ranks, including Germany's Olaf Scholz, Spain's Pedro Sánchez, Portugal's António Costa and Denmark's Mette Frederiksen, the anointed candidate attempted to build his power base and vowed to defend the party's core values and priorities: labour rights, gender equality, climate action and social justice.

"We are the movement that fights against precariousness, especially the lives and jobs of young people," he said. "We will fight for the Green Deal with a red heart."

Still, Schmit has virtually no chance of taking over the Commission. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the group in the European Parliament that encompasses PES members, is projected to finish second at the June elections. The latest estimate by Europe Elects, a poll aggregator, shows a considerable distance between the S&D (from 154 seats in 2019 to 140 in 2024) and the EPP (from 182 to 180).

Asked about the recognisability gap between himself and von der Leyen, Schmit said he had a "lot of esteem" for the president but insisted "we're both candidates."

"We will see," he said. "The campaign will start and then I invite everyone to judge."

'The very soul of Europe is at risk'

Even more worrying for socialists, the forecasts also predict a strong rise of hard-right and far-right parties, which would tilt the hemicycle decisively towards conservative ideas and away from the progressive causes that socialists favour.

During von der Leyen's first mandate, the grand coalition between EPP, S&D and the liberals from Renew Europe proved instrumental to advance far-reaching, ambitious proposals to speed up the transition to climate neutrality, rein in the excesses in the digital world, reform the bloc's migration and asylum policy, ensure continued financial support for Ukraine, ramp up domestic production of cutting-edge technology, and decrease dependencies on unreliable suppliers, like Russia and China.

But in the past year, the grand coalition began to wobble and shake, as the EPP adopted a more confrontational attitude against the Green Deal, one of von der Leyen's flagship initiatives, claiming the multiple pieces of legislation approved to slash the bloc's greenhouse gas emission have created excessive red tape for the private sector, made it harder to invest and risked the loss of competitiveness.

The fierce battle over the Nature Restoration Law, a regulation to gradually rehabilitate the EU's degraded ecosystems, laid bare the simmering tension between conservatives and socialists, with bitter recriminations and finger-pointing. Although the EPP eventually lost that fight, it enabled the group to re-position itself as a "pro-business" and, particularly, a "pro-farmers party," a stance that the recent protests have only reinforced.

Von der Leyen's withdrawal of a contentious law to halve the use of chemical pesticides, an important source of nitrogen emissions, was warmly celebrated by EPP lawmakers last month. The move marked the first major defeat under the Green Deal.

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In response to this ideological shift, socialists have ratcheted up their rhetoric, warning the EPP is moving away from the mainstream centre and normalising talking points of the extreme right for purely electoral purposes. The alliances struck between mainstream conservatives and hard-right formations in countries like Italy, Sweden and Finland are evidence of this increasingly blurred line, socialist leaders said at Rome.

European socialists came together to elect Nicolas Schmit (second on the left) as lead candidate for the EU elections.
European socialists came together to elect Nicolas Schmit (second on the left) as lead candidate for the EU elections.Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse

In his speech, Schmit made it clear his political family will not cooperate with Identity and Democracy (ID) or the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the two most Eurosceptic groups in the European Parliament. The candidate then asked the EPP and the liberals to "be coherent with yourself" and "stay faithful to your own history, to your European commitment" before striking any new alliances.

"We will fight those propagating hate and division in our societies, those who fuel fears and prepare the return of nationalism," Schmit said. "The normalisation of the extreme right, as we have seen it in the Netherlands, is dangerous and irresponsible."

A similar message was echoed by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who spoke of "ghosts of the past" that are creeping over the European institutions and longing for a time that "never existed."

"The far right is growing all over Europe, in many places supported by conventional right that is imitating its arguments and populist techniques," Sánchez told the congress.

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"The very soul of Europe is at risk. And once again, it's up to us, the social democrats, to defeat that threat and ensure that history continues to advance in the right direction."

Despite the difficult prospects ahead, socialists joined forces to reclaim their legacy, arguing the main policy responses provided to the most recent crises, including the €750-billion recovery fund and the joint procurement of coronavirus vaccines, had been inspired by social democracy and therefore justified the validity of their ideology.

"These elections are crucial for the future of Europe. It is up to us to provide progressive and fair solutions to the main challenges threatening our societies and our people," said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, referring to migrant smuggling, social dumping, corporate tax evasion and children poverty.

"Our next step is to demonstrate how our social democratic goals of social justice, economic (equality), green ambition and security go hand in hand."

The elections to the European Parliament will be held between 6 and 9 June. About 350 million eligible voters will be called to cast their ballots across 27 member states.

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In the immediate aftermath of the elections, EU leaders are expected to gather in a crucial summit to divvy up the bloc's top jobs: president of the European Commission, president of the European Council and high representative for foreign and security policy.

With the Commission all but guaranteed to land on the EPP's camp, socialists are aiming to secure the European Council's presidency, currently occupied by Charles Michel, a liberal politician from Belgium.

This article has been updated with more information about the PES Congress.

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