MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s election victory delivered a shot in the arm for Europe’s struggling left, which fears a surge by the right in this month’s European parliament elections.
The Spanish Socialists’ gains on Sunday were a relief for their counterparts elsewhere on the continent who have watched the rise of nationalism and far-right parties in recent years and an erosion of belief in Brussels and EU integration.
“To Europeans I say that social democracy has a great future because it has a great present and Spain is an example of that,” Sanchez told supporters on election night. “We formed a pro-European government to strengthen, not weaken, Europe.”
While it did not win a parliamentary majority, Sanchez’s center-left party increased its seats in parliament by almost 50 percent and beat back the traditional conservative Popular Party (PP).
Vox became the first far-right party to win several seats in parliament since the 1970s, but with 10 percent of the national vote it fell short of expectations.
“This is a victory for solidarity, fairness, dialogue, equality, sustainability,” tweeted Frans Timmermans, a Dutch Socialist running for a seat in the European parliament on May 26. “This is what many Europeans crave.”
European Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, a French Socialist, congratulated Sanchez, tweeting that Spain had chosen the European reformist left. “That’s the way to go!,” he said.
“His (Sanchez’s) victory shows that you can count on social democrats in Europe,” German SPD head Ortsverein Achim told Reuters.
The term social democracy is widely used in continental Europe to describe leftist and center-leftist parties that believe in tempering the effects of free markets with strong welfare policies.
Slow recovery from the euro zone debt crisis has threatened Europe’s efforts at closer integration and cooperation in the past few years and helped populist rightists take advantage of dissatisfaction with Brussels. Such sentiment was seen in Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and in the sharp decline of the traditional left in France and Italy.
Italy’s center-left Democratic Party took a drubbing in 2018 elections, winning just 19 percent, as the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and far-right League took power. In France, the Socialists’ support has collapsed to about five percent since Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, leaving it as a minor party.
Germany has been governed by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel for years.
European social democrat leaders who called to congratulate Sanchez saw his victory as a success for European socialists and hoped it would improve their chances at the May 23-26 European parliament elections, according to a source at the prime minister’s office.
“This is the best news that the social democrats have received in a long time,” said Ignacio Molina, a researcher at think tank Elcano.
Spain could become the country with the most members of the European parliament’s Socialist bloc, depending on what happens with Britain’s departure.
That is likely to make Madrid a more important player, in policies that matter to Spain, such as migration, banking union and climate action, as well as in the choice of the new European Commission.
“We will be decisive in the choice of the new European Commission head,” said Jonas Fernandez, a Socialist member of the European parliament.
The social democrats’ comeback may have started in Spain’s Iberian neighbor, Portugal.
Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa has governed Portugal since 2015 with the support of far-left parties. Having delivered strong growth and rolled back austerity since the debt crisis, Costa is now close to winning a majority at a general election in the autumn, according to opinion polls.
Elsewhere along Europe’s edges, Sweden, Slovakia and Malta are also led by socialists, while Greece and Romania have left-wing leaders. The center-left Social Democrats won Finland’s election last month and in Denmark polls show socialists leading ahead of elections.
But the question remains whether this will lead to a shift in Europe’s bigger countries. For now, at least, there is more hope for left and center-left parties ahead of the European elections.
“Now we know that we are not alone in our effort to defend and change Europe,” said Pierfrancesco Majorino, a candidate from Italy’s center-left Democratic Party for the European parliament.
Opinion polls show the PD neck-and-neck with the 5-Star Movement at around 23 percent each.
In France, Sanchez could lead as an example.
“We need to see a big surge on the left that counterbalances the nationalists and the liberals,” said French Socialist leader Olivier Faure. “The Socialists are showing a rebirth in Spain after being mocked and given up for dead.”
(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous word in lead)
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Paris, Alexander Ratz in Berlin, Angelo Amante in Rome and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Axel Bugge; Editing by Frances Kerry