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A European Wagenknecht Group?

EURACTIV reported on 22 February 2024 that the newly formed German, economically centre-left but socially slightly conservative Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht – Für Vernunft und Gerechtigkeit party is considering initiating a new group in the European Parliament. BSW is polling at 6.5% in the latest INSA poll for the European Parliament and Europe Elects’ projection sees the party winning seven seats. This significant level of support renders it important to see if BSW’s dreams of its own EU Parliament group are realistic.

There are currently seven political groups in the European Parliament, which coordinate the work of the parliamentarians for political action. Their members, aligned by ideology across national borders, collectively propose amendments to proposed legislation in the European Parliament. In recent years, membership in European Parliament groups and political parties has become important as it represents a source of legitimacy, especially for younger political parties.

European Parliament groups can newly emerge depending on the political context. For example, the current Greens–European Free Alliance (G/EFA) was preceded by several groups under different names which united environmentalist-progressive as well as regionalist forces, a cluster which emerged amidst electoral demand for more sustainable and decentralised politics in the mid-1980s.

BSW’s momentum as a party is based on three national developments in Germany, to which the left-of-centre mainstream has remained unresponsive (at least according to the perception of the electorate). First, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Wagenknecht rejects sending weapons to Ukraine and demands that the European government should push for peace negotiations—something critics see as naïve appeasement to be taken advantage of in Moscow. While remaining vague on the specifics, BSW also opposes further EU and Atlanticist integration. Second, Wagenknecht is somewhat socially conservative, she and her party argue that gender and sexuality are overprioritised, overshadowing and distracting from more relevant, economic issues. Additionally, she argues in favour of limiting immigration more than it is currently the case. Third, BSW also critiques the current approach to a greener economy—climate change as such is not as central to the party’s policy platform as it is for most other left-of-centre parties in Europe.

BSW is not alone. Similar parties on the political left have set themselves apart in a similar programmatic manner in other European countries.

However, the creation of new political groups in the EU Parliament is difficult. Under the current setup, it requires at least 23 parliamentarians from at least seven countries. And it is currently unclear whether the momentum is strong enough for BSW to find enough like-minded parliamentarians across Europe.

BSW’s profile provides opportunities and thresholds for Wagenknecht to find European partners. Before discussing concrete cases, it is important to note that Wagenknecht has firmly rejected cooperating with the radical right.

Disgruntled leftists

A first set of possible partners that may be open to forming a new European Parliament group with BSW are left-wing Western European parties currently organised in The Left in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL (LEFT). BSW’s opportunity here is that some of these parties have qualms with the majority opinion within their group. This includes the Belgian Partij van de Arbeid van België/Parti du Travail de Belgique (PTB/PVDA; three projected seats), which—coming from a Maoist tradition—sees NATO at least partially responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. PTB/PVDA has become one of the largest parties in Belgium, which speaks to Wagenknecht’s aspiration to present BSW as a so-called big tent party. It also includes La France Insoumise (LFI; seven projected seats), which Wagenknecht has repeatedly referenced as a blueprint for her own party and leads the organisation of Now The People! Inside the LEFT parliamentary group. BSW claims that they are already in contact with LFI.

Equally, BSW has made the claim to be in touch with other Nordic left-wing parties—notably all part of Now The People!, but representatives from the relevant parties in Denmark and Sweden denied intentions to form new political groups. The Dutch Socialistische Partij (SP; 45% chance to win one seat) is another case. SP opposes Ukraine’s membership in the EU and is not deeply integrated with the European Left on a formal level due to its socially slightly more conservative approach. Another case is the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), which voted against condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, the PCP is likely (75% probability) to lose representation for the first time, according to the Europe Elects projection. The Greek communist Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας (KKE; two projected seats), which parted ways with the European Left in 2010 and now sits with the Non-Inscrits group, boycotted Ukrainian president Zelenskyi’s address to the Greek parliament.

However, there is one major threshold for these parties to become part of a Wagenknecht group: BSW has made a distinct effort to not be perceived as a ‘left-wing’ party, also to distance itself from Die Linke (LINKE) at home. Partnering with communists and distinctly left-wing parties may counteract that effort just months before the regional parliament elections in important German states, which will have an important impact on the institutionalisation of BSW ahead of the national parliament election scheduled for 2025. At the same time, the seats coming from these left-wing parties alone are too meagre to fulfill either the 23-seat or seven-country institutional requirement.

Eastern European renegades

Another set of potential partners are Eastern European parties that are at odds with the socially progressive and anti-Putin course of their western social democratic partners. Examples include the Bulgarian Българска социалистическа партия (BSP; two projected seats) and the Romanian Partidul Social Democrat (PSD; 8 projected seats). One could also include the Slovak SMER – Sociálna Demokracia (SMER; five projected seats), which parted ways with the S&D Group last fall and the Slovak HLAS – sociálna demokracia (HLAS; two projected seats), which was suspended from the Party of European Socialists together with SMER around the same time.

However, these parties may be too radical for Wagenknecht when it comes to non-European immigration and the LGBTIQ community. For instance, PSD has made an active effort to disadvantage same-sex relationships relative to opposite-sex relationships in recent years. Robert Fico, leader of SMER, stated that Muslims had no place in Slovakia. While HLAS is more moderate, its cooperation with SMER and the right-wing SNS party in government may pose an additional threshold for cooperation with Wagenknecht. On the other hand, collaborating with three national government parties—PSD, SMER or HLAS—would be an important source of influence for BSW. On the other hand, there may be little incentive for PSD to leave the powerful S&D group in the EU Parliament in favour of a fragile and hypothetical BSW alliance. In sum, not all conservative social democrats are a natural fit for the ‘left-conservative’ Wagenknecht.

Yet another set of parties in Eastern Europe would support Wagenknecht’s appeasement course toward Russian President Vladimir Putin; this includes, for example, the Latvian Stabilitātei! (S!; one projected seat), which has strong support among the Russian-speaking population in the country. The party has recently been abstaining from national parliamentary resolutions on Ukraine. The Lithuanian Darbo partija (DP; one projected seat) is another case that may seek allegiance with BSW, however, given the history of its founder, Viktor Uspaskich, who has funded the pro-Russian propaganda website Petys į Petį and has been badly marred in subsequent investigations, it is unlikely that BSW would agree to a cooperation.

Lonesome Italians, expelled Spaniards

A fourth set of parties may seek an alliance with BSW less on ideological but also on pragmatic grounds. The Italian Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S-NI) has been attempting to join European Parliament groups for many, many years, throughout its very existence in fact, but has not found much acceptance—either due to their ideological profile (when they were rejected by the Greens/EFA group) or due to their national competitors opposing their group accession. However, as per the current EU Parliament projection, they would bring 13 parliamentarians and would fit well with BSW’s eclectic ideological profile. The Spanish Junts per Catalunya (NI), which is projected to win one seat and support an independent Catalan state within the EU, could mean another potential ally for BSW. Junts was expelled from the liberal RE group after the party initiated an independence referendum in Catalonia, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish state. Just like BSW, Junts and M5S could need new allies in the EU Parliament, as this comes with additional legitimacy and parliamentary rights.

Ireland elected independent candidates in previous years whose ideology align with Wagenknecht. For example, Mike Wallace and Clare Daly voted against condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. However, it is unclear if one or two candidates with a similar profile would be elected again.

A cumbersome arithmetic

Either way, the Wagenknecht group in the EU Parliament would need to draw from multiple sources. Possible is, for instance, M5S (13 projected seats), BSW (five), LFI (seven), HLAS (two), S! (one), Junts (one), and an independent Irish parliamentarian in one group. With 30 seats from seven countries, it would fulfill the legal requirement for a shared European Parliament group. The first three parties named here alone would already bring 25 parliamentarians to the table, giving the group the potential to be more selective in who they would accept in addition.

In sum, the thresholds for BSW creating its own group in the EU Parliament remain high. While there are some contenders who are unhappy with their current bloc positioning in the EU Parliament, the ideological differences between them and BSW remain significant. These ideological differences may be even larger if BSW would bring together a coalition of the sets of parties—which would be necessary to reach the requirement of 23 parliamentarians from seven countries.

The Europe Elects EU Parliament projection previously considered BSW as part of the Left Group in the EU Parliament, which is based on Andrej Hunko’s and Sevim Dağdelen‘s Group of the Unified European Left (UEL) membership in the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council. This was based on the methodological assumption that there is a high but not perfect congruence between UEL and Left Group membership. In recent weeks, Europe Elects has learnt from credible sources that decide over Left Group membership in the EU Parliament after the election that ‘joining the left-wing faction in the [EU Parliament] would be difficult to negotiate’ and that ‘in this respect, it would probably make most sense at the moment to assign [BSW] to the Non-Inscrits.’ Consequently, from now on, Europe Elects categorises BSW within the NI bracket. All things considered, the probabilities are not on BSW’s side to assemble a group of their own. Spring shows whether they’ll manage to change it.

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