Monday

21st Jan 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.

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  • 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.

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