party conferences in the UK or US – is highly unusual. But they are coinciding because they are both meant to get each side singing from the same hymn sheet at next Friday's incredibly important European Council summit. And given Europe's current political reality, the choice of a Northern capital for the right's meeting and a Southern capital for the left's meeting seems entirely appropriate.
But despite the fact that these are nominally meetings of Europe's two main political groups, the reality is that the Helsinki summit will effectively be a meeting of those running Europe while Athens will be an ignored meeting of those sitting on the sidelines. Because the European left has been pushed to Europe's geographic fringes and marginalized by the debt crisis, the Athens meeting will be a meeting of politicians "in opposition". In Helsinki, German chancellor Angela Merkel will lead a meeting of representatives of the governments of 17 of the 27 EU member states. At the Socialist conference in Athens only five governments will be represented.
In addition to national leaders like Merkel, Berlusconi and Ireland's incoming prime minister Enda Kenny, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy– both from the EPP – are also in Helsinki. The president of the European Parliament, EPP politician Jerzy Buzek, may come tomorrow. They will be discussing the Eurozone Competitiveness Pact drawn up by Merkel and Sarkozy as well as the debt relief fund. They will also discuss a united European response to the events in North Africa. In effect it will be a sort of mini European Council summit.
What will they talk about in Athens? Who knows. Who cares? Whatever is on the agenda, it will have little consequence for the direction of EU policy.
Europe's common currency. Greece has had to take a bailout from the EU largely financed by Germany, which has made the government there practically a puppet regime of Merkel in the eyes of many Greeks. Portugal seems just weeks or maybe even days away from taking such a bailout itself, and Spain may not be far behind. The leaders of these three governments have come to barely resemble Socialists as they have hacked away public spending in a way that would have made Margaret Thatcher blush.
Austria and Slovenia may not have the same financial problems as their Mediterranean neighbors, but nor are they particularly relevant on the European stage - being very small member states. And Cyprus isn't even in the PES, they are in the communist Party of the European Left (PEL). On the right, they have natural allies in the four Northern European governments currently run by Liberal ('Libertarian' for Americans) governments - Denmark, Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands. They are natural allies of the center-right, meaning that the right now controls 21 member states while the left controls just six. For anyone who's keeping score at home.
It's a situation the socialists can hardly be happy with. After all this should have been their moment. The flaws of free-market capitalism were brutally exposed by the banking and debt crises. But the party as a whole wasn't able to convince the public that they had the solutions to deal with the collapsing economy. It is a situation that must be particularly frustrating for the Mediterranean socialist governments, who were all elected just shortly before the economic crisis hit and are now paying the price for the economic irresponsibility of their center-right predecessors. Greece's conservative party was downright criminal, lying about the country's finances and taking on unsustainable levels of debt. The Greek public voted them out and brought in the Socialists, but because Greece's economic situation is so bad they've been forced to accept government-by-proxy from centre-right parties to the north.
"Greece is in the right hands, Europe is in the wrong hands". His point was that the Socialist governments on the Mediterranean are taking tough choices in the face of the mess they were left by conservatives, while the center-right majority in the European Union is using the crisis as a way to chip away at the European social model. But this seems like a stretch, considering that the policies being pursued by Greek Prime Minsiter George Papandreou have largely been dictated to him by Germany and the European Central Bank.
There are undeniably advantages to one political ideology dominating Europe at this moment. The more Europe speaks with one voice, the more coordinated EU action to fight the crisis will be. One can only imagine the mess right now if half the EU states were pursuing a policy of Austerity while the other half were pursuing a strategy of stimulus. So perhaps it is fortuitous that Europe is dominated by centre-right politicians now who are leading a pan-European austerity drive. But for the socialists, watching so much of the European social state be chipped away has been hard to watch, and it's only going to get worse. And they know well that it could have easily gone the other way, that the EU could now be pursuing a pan-European strategy of stimulus while ring-fencing the European social model - if only the electorate had swung to them at the time of the crisis. Just five short years ago the map above looked quite different. Germany, Italy and the UK all had PES governments of the left. But they were all kicked out of office in favor of conservatives over the past five years.
In the mean time, being almost completely shut out of power, all the Socialists in Athens can do is watch from the sidelines as it all unfolds. Today, Europe's decisions are being taken in Helsinki.