Sunday

22nd May 2022

Liberal leaders try to rebuild influence

Liberals are aiming to make their presence bigger across Europe and their voices more relevant, as members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) gather in Budapest for their annual congress on Thursday (19 November) to elect a new president.

Liberals suffered a serious blow in Germany two years ago, when the FDP stumbled out of the Bundestag, and in the UK elections earlier this year the Liberal Democrats were trounced.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Leaders gathered in the Hungarian capital (Photo: Axel Buhrmann)

Liberals also lost seats in the 2014 European elections. With 70 MEPs from 21 countries in the European Parliament, they dropped from the third- to the fourth-largest group.

According to Votewatch Europe, a Brussels-based NGO, the ALDE group remains the kingmaker in the parliament between the two main groups, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), not least thanks to its bellicose group leader, Guy Verhofstadt.

With fears of terrorism on the rise after the attacks in Paris, the discussion on how far freedom and civil liberties should be curbed to protect citizens has been reignited.

Liberal values are under attack in some eastern European member states, where Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, for one, is explicitly following what he calls an “illiberal” model of democracy.

Yet liberals, including Siim Kallas and Hans Van Baalen, the two leadership candidates, say the answer to those challenges lies in standing up for liberal values more loudly, to make citizens understand that there is an alternative to fear and to shutting the doors.

“Let’s make liberals relevant!,” said Kallas, a former Estonian prime minister and EU commissioner.

“The four freedoms of the EU are under threat," he argued, referring to the free movement of goods, services, capital and people enshrined in the EU treaty. "We should fight for them, and we should defend them at the European level.”

“The main objective for 2019 should be making the EP group bigger,” Kallas told EUobserver.

His competitor agrees.

“For real influence, we need to grow,” Dutch MEP Hans Van Baalen told EUobserver.

Kallas and Van Baalen do not differ much on policy issues.

Kallas noted that the tax burden has risen in Europe over the last three years and that economic policies have moved towards regulation and centralisation – in his view, a mistake.

Both candidates agree on free trade, with Kallas arguing that keeping obsolete businesses alive will cost taxpayers more in the long-term.

Refugees and liberties

Both also insist that curbing individual freedoms is not the way to go, nor is singling out minorities.

“We have to make people understand that xenophobia can turn against you too,” said Kallas.

Protecting human and civil rights are too often seen as an “elitist” issues, and liberals have to do unpopular things, Kallas argues.

“Just look at the numbers,” he said about the migrants coming to Europe. "We can accommodate these people."

“We need a ‘Marshall Plan’ to tackle the refugee crisis,” Van Baalen said, citing measures to tackle discrimination, teach languages to the refugees and help them to find work.

Van Baalen insists that in the fight against terrorism, liberals "won’t accept that our civil liberties, our values we want to protect, are to be sacrificed.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the minorities coming from the Middle East and Turkey and living in our countries are law-abiding citizens. We should not do a favour to IS by turning against our citizens of a different religion,” he added.

We’ll survive

The main difference between Kallas and Van Baalen is what they represent.

Kallas says he is for change, while his opponent is part of the establishment.

Van Baalen argues that this is exactly what will make him a good president: bringing people together, uniting social liberals and economic liberals.

He argued that liberals are unique, in a sense. “Free market is the basic part of freedom, the essence. Civil liberties are the other side of the same coin. You have to combine the two, and only the liberals can do that."

Serving as an MP in the Netherlands for ten years and seven years in the EP, as well as for five years as president of Liberal International, the world federation of liberal and democratic parties, Van Baalen pledged to be a grass-roots president.

“I make things happen,” he declared.

The candidates will put their arguments to delegates on Friday, and the vote will be on Saturday.

Opinion

Liberal policy strengthens Europe

Today the European liberal movement is not strong enough to significantly influence the European Union's policies, writes Siim Kallas, a former EU commissioner, who is running to lead Europe's liberal party.

Liberals still EP kingmakers, study says

Liberal MEPs remain the ‘kingmakers’ in deciding close votes in the European Parliament, despite seeing their numbers seriously diminished in last year’s European elections.

Opinion

Why are liberal democracies not winning the argument?

Unlimited freedom to say whatever one wants, the right to love and marry whomever one likes, a democratic decision-making process - we should not fool ourselves into thinking that these are universally accepted concepts.

Opinion

Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine - the case for granting EU candidacy

Granting EU candidacy status to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine will firmly anchor their ties with Brussels — and enable the EU to secure its place in the Black Sea region, connecting Europe to China and energy-rich Central Asia, bypassing Russia.

Opinion

The EU Parliament Covid inquiry: the questions MEPs must ask

A basic lack of transparency around the EU's vaccines procurement negotiations has prevented effective public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has also made it impossible to answer some of the key questions we put forward here.

News in Brief

  1. UK to send 'hundreds' of migrants to Rwanda each year
  2. Norwegian knife attacks were domestic dispute
  3. Sweden hits back at Turkey's 'disinformation' in Nato bid
  4. Germany's Schröder gives up one of two Russia jobs
  5. G7 countries pledge €18bn in financial aid for Ukraine
  6. Italian unions strike in protest over military aid for Ukraine
  7. Russia cuts gas supply to Finland
  8. Half of Gazprom's clients have opened rouble accounts

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic delegation visits Nordic Bridges in Canada
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersClear to proceed - green shipping corridors in the Nordic Region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers agree on international climate commitments
  4. UNESDA - SOFT DRINKS EUROPEEfficient waste collection schemes, closed-loop recycling and access to recycled content are crucial to transition to a circular economy in Europe
  5. UiPathNo digital future for the EU without Intelligent Automation? Online briefing Link

Latest News

  1. What Europe still needs to do to save its bees
  2. Remembering Falcone: How Italy almost became a narco-state
  3. Economic worries and Hungary on the spot Next WEEK
  4. MEPs urge sanctioning the likes of ex-chancellor Schröder
  5. MEPs call for a more forceful EU response to Kremlin gas cut
  6. Catalan leader slams Pegasus use: 'Perhaps I'm still spied on'
  7. More EU teams needed to prosecute Ukraine war crimes
  8. French EU presidency struggling on asylum reforms

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us