Monday

25th Mar 2019

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

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join 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.

Centre-right EPP faces showdown with Orban

The EU's largest political alliance, the EPP, will try to put the 'Orban issue' behind it going into the European election campaign. Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, could be expelled or suspended from the political family.

News in Brief

  1. May admits 'not sufficient support' for third Brexit vote
  2. Orban vows more EU 'information campaigns'
  3. May 'effectively out of power', says Scottish leader
  4. May under pressure to resign over Brexit endgame
  5. Million march against Brexit, five million sign petition
  6. Italy first G7 country to sign China Belt and Road deal
  7. EU leaders at summit demand more effort on disinformation
  8. Report: Corbyn to meet May on Monday for Brexit talks

Opinion

Catalan independence trial is widening Spain's divides

What is really needed is not the theatre of a rebellion trial, but a forensic examination of whether public funds were misused, and a process of dialogue and negotiation on how the Catalan peoples' right to self-determination can be satisfied.

Orban hosts Weber in Budapest for EPP showdown

The future of the Viktor Orban's Fidesz party inside the European Parliament's centre-right EPP political group hangs in the balance. On Tuesday, Orban and EPP chief Manfred Weber meet in Budapest in a final effort to iron out differences.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Latest News

  1. Romania presidency shatters EU line on Jerusalem
  2. The Spitzen process - a coup that was never accepted
  3. Russia and money laundering in Europe
  4. Italy takes China's new Silk Road to the heart of Europe
  5. What EU leaders agreed on climate - and what they mean
  6. Copyright and (another) new Brexit vote This WEEK
  7. EU avoids Brexit crash, sets new date for 12 April
  8. Campaigning commissioners blur the lines

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us