When Martin Schulz stands up in front of assorted delegates at the Party of European Socialists congress in Rome on March 1, one should be forgiven for finding too many echoes of the grainy black-and-white pictures of Comintern congresses from the days long past.
Many will argue that the substance of the Left’s policies is far removed from the rhetoric of the 1930s, but as far as the organisational aspect of it goes, there does not seem to be much of a difference.
The Party of European Socialists, lest one forget, is after all an associated organisation of the Socialist International, the post-World War 2 reincarnation of the Comintern. So it really should come as little surprise that Schulz – in that grand old tradition of communism everywhere – stands unopposed as the sole candidate for the party’s nomination of European Commission president after the European Parliament elections in May.
It is not this author’s intention to suggest that Schulz is a communist – far from it – merely highlight the incongruity between the PES internal nomination process and the stated goals of the European Parliament (the incumbent president of which is none other than Schulz himself) to bridge the perceived democratic deficit of the European Union institutions.
At least its main rival in the upcoming election, the European People’s Party, is giving its members the opportunity for vote for the EPP candidate as EC president at its own congress next week, even if the outcome is likely to be yet another representative of the “old EU”, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
The only way PES could have enhanced the parallels between its Rome congress and the Comintern’s meetings from yore is if it plumped for PES president and Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev as its candidate. (Comintern, of course, having had Bulgaria’s Georgi Dimitrov as its leader after 1934 and until its dissolution.)
Stanishev, born in the Soviet Union (Kherson in southern Ukraine, to be precise) and educated at the Moscow State University – by happenstance, his own election as PES president also came with no other candidate standing for the post – may yet prove the most important person in Schulz’s campaign, and not in a good way.
Schulz has come under fire from the EPP for the 60 000 euro contract to promote the European Parliament in Bulgaria, awarded to a public relations firm owned by Stanishev’s spouse, Monika. EPP MEP Ingeborg Graessle went as far as saying that the episode raised doubts that Schulz secured funding for “his political friends”. (Stanisheva, who allegedly failed to declare her relationship to the PES president in the tender paperwork, has since said that her company has cancelled the contract and returned the advance paid to it.)
An unopposed leader of a socialist party accused of helping out close associates in business matters? Old news to all of us in “new EU”, who have seen that narrative pop up again and again – affecting those on the left and the right of the political spectrum, but ultimately often rooted in the period when the break-down of communist regimes led to fortunes being made overnight by previous unknowns (stories of briefcases with party cash being handed out are suspiciously prevalent everywhere in the region to be dismisses as merely an urban legend).
It does not help matters that the PES Presidency has been quite opaque in its preparations of the party’s election manifesto, which delegates of the Rome congress will be asked to endorse. One would think that a little transparency (much talked about but little seen in Bulgaria, where the socialists hold the government’s mandate, lest one forgets) and debate could not hurt any attempt to draft a truly meaningful policy blueprint for a party looking to win the largest share of seats in the European Parliament.
Otherwise, it risks becoming the meaningless declaratory piece of paper that the Comintern was so famous for.
(Martin Schulz and Sergei Stanishev. Photo: PES/Eric Vidal via flickr.com)