As Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s current Foreign Minister and Hail Mary Social Democratic candidate for Chancellor in the September elections, began to speak at his inaugural campaign rally this Sunday in Berlin, Europe’s socialists held their collective breath. 

They needed something big.  Coming off of a thunderous defeat in last week’s European Union parliamentary election Europe’s classic socialist Volksparteien are leaderless, directionless, and desperate for good news.

At a time of an arguably übercapitalist-inspired global downturn, record unemployment and a center-left American president with perhaps more fans in Europe than the United States, Europe’s collective left last week tripped over the easiest hurdle they have faced in years. The collective Party of European Socialists won only 183 of 736 seats in the June 6 elections (as opposed to the 264 won by the conservative European People’s Party), and saw its once teeming masses of supporters drift away to Green parties and, just as often and certainly more painfully, various manifestations of the extreme right. 

There were some outcomes last week that were particularly bewildering for Europe’s liberals.  Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did well, despite suffering a slew of scandals that would surely have sunk nearly any other politician one could name.  Il Cavaliere, according to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, confided to friends the Monday after the elections that he saw more than a few obstacles to the success of his People’s Freedom Party in EU elections.  Not only was he facing a backlash for having nominated two former showgirls, along with a Miss Italy contender and a Big Brother celebrity, as candidates for the European elections.  He also, as he said, had to deal with a “spicy” (actually, his point was that it wasn’t spicy) relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model and his wife’s subsequent public demand for a divorce, the publication by El Pais of lewd photographs of him and an entourage of young women and aging European politicians enjoying themselves at his private villa in Sardinia, and finally the trading from his personal soccer team AC Milan of its beloved captain, the Brazilian superstar Kaká.  At one point he argued that incompetence on the part of his aides had played a big part in losing votes, and that “I lost the rest because of my wife.”  Yet in the end he needed not have been so concerned.  On June 7 Berlusconi’s People’s Freedom Party pulled 35 percent of the Italian vote, only a three point drop from the last European elections in 2004, and a whopping 10 percent lead on the social democrats. Not a bad result at all.

And it wasn’t just Italy.  In Britain, Spain and Portugal governing center-left parties took heavy hits, and incumbent conservatives in Poland, Germany and France saw their social-democratic foes drop significantly in the polls.  The salt in the socialist wound was watching a host of far right parties from Holland, the UK, Austria and Hungary win big.  Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far right Austrian Freedom party, saw his controversial campaign of brandishing slogans such as Echte Volksverträter statt EU Verräter (real representatives of the people instead of EU traitors) pay substantial dividends: his FPÖ improved its 2004 result of 6.4 by bringing in 13.1 percent of the vote on June 6.  Watching the results come in, European Socialist leader Martin Schulz could only say, “It is a bitter evening.”  EU-friendly parties still retain a safe majority in the EU parliament, but the damage to the left has been done. 

Looking to Germany

This is why Steinmeier’s speech mattered.  Following dramatic EU elections, Europe’s biggest country will hold an election that may determine the fate of Europe’s biggest (and arguably oldest) socialist party.  The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is facing complete marginalization this September at the hands of Chancellor Merkel and the Christian Democrats, despite the economy, and despite the fact that Angela Merkel is seen even in Germany as the political antithesis of the charismatic American president. 

Perhaps most frustratingly of all for the liberals, the EU result also comes after a period of politicking along time-worn party fundamentals: arguing for the perpetuation of the welfare state, for the intervention of government when the market fails, and that the rich should pay for the consequences of economic downturn.  Truth be told, none of even the most pessimistic SPD politicians expected a defeat on the magnitude of June 6.  Yet having just led his party to its worst drubbing since World War II—winning 20.8 percent to the Christian Democrats’ 37.9 percent—Steinmeier last week could only offer a bit of soccer wisdom: “When one day doesn’t go well, you just have to shake yourself, go out on the field again and win the next one.” Whether this Teutonic brand of “Yes We Can” will translate to the ballot box is yet to be seen.

In the buildup to his Sunday speech, Steinmeier told the newspaper Bild am Sontag this would be “the most important speech of my political career.”  Die Zeit columnist Christoph Seils agreed, arguing, “This is because he doesn’t only need to show that he has the winning ideas and the desire to fight to the end, he must also counter the growing doubt about himself [as the best SPD candidate]. Most social democrats know that Steinmeier is no ideal candidate.”  In fact, he has never even run for public office before now, having long ago left his job as a lawyer to ride former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s coattails to the upper echelons of German government.  On top of that, he must, in his campaign, walk the tightrope of campaigning against a coalition partner while trying to scrape votes away from populist parties. This makes nearly impossible the kind of battle seen in Germany’s 2005 elections where then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, through no-holds barred campaigning, fiercely fought back from a more than 15 point deficit only weeks before the election to within one point of victory.

In the speech Steinmeier did his best to stop the bleeding.  Before a large softly lit banner that read “Germany, Social and Democratic,” he began, “Last Sunday was not a good day. It was rubbish. I was angry like you, but today is a new Sunday. Today we are here to look forward….European elections are one thing, domestic elections are another. I tell you, this thing is open. We will keep it open and win.” His voice rising, he continued, “We have the right answers to the crisis, I am totally convinced. We have the right program for the future of our country….Germany needs a Social Democratic chancellor. Together we will achieve that. We want to win and we will win.”

There was little new—certainly no radical change from the slogans and policy proposals that led the SPD into last week’s fiasco.  One supporter summarized his message: “Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he will focus on politics for the people, not the markets.”  Whether that helps raise him from his current 33 point deficit to Chancellor Angela Merkel is anyone’s guess.

National elections always result in higher voter turnout than do EU elections. Still, the mild-mannered Steinmeier is no tenacious bulldog like former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, nor can he deliver speeches like President Obama. A political movement with an identity crisis has not gained the shining talisman it needs. Liberals around Europe may simply have to hope that Steinmeier has some other trick up his sleeve—that for some reason he kept hidden on Sunday.    

Nicholas Siegel is a research assistant at the Atlantic Council.