Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Liberals debate their future in Budapest

  • Candidates' ideas were not much different (Photo: EUobserver)

There was an election mood at the Liberal congress in Budapest on Friday (20 November) night, as a rare debate took place between the two candidates running for the presidency of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe party.

Delegates prepared with banners and loud cheers for the clash between Siim Kallas, former Estonian prime minister and ex-EU commissioner, and Hans Van Baalen, a Dutch MEP.

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The US-style political debate kicked off with introductory videos on the candidates.

They highlighted the two very different characters: Kallas walking on the beach with his grandchildren, explaining the meaning of freedom, while Van Baalen, speaking from the halls of the European Parliament, emphasised his ability to mobilise voters.

Open competition is rare in big European political families. Leadership is usually decided behind closed doors.

But the Liberal delegates take pride in having a real competition. “It’s great. That’s the real difference between us and the other parties,” said an enthused young visitor before the debate.

During the debate, Kallas, promised 120 liberal MEPs by 2019 (there are 70 today) and more influence on EU policies. He started off by a joke on his signature-style accent, saying: “I hope you enjoy my accent, borrowed from Finnish Formula 1 drivers.”

Kallas said he is a man of ideas, while Van Baalen said he is a man of action.

Their ideas didn’t differ that much - supporting young people starting off businesses, standing up to Russia, fighting for an inclusive society.

Kallas urged jobs for refugees and migrants as soon as possible, saying “if we keep them in camps, then it’s hopeless.”

Van Baalen said migrants and refugees have rights and duties, but so does mainstream society, in not leaving people abandoned.

“Siim’s experience is impressive, but Hans is a very lively, on the top of things kind of man,” said a young woman before the debate, noting that liberals might choose the candidate they believe will able to secure votes.

Others were disappointed the candidates didn’t address how liberals could make their voices heard in a Europe, where liberal values are increasingly isolated.

“I’ve heard nothing that will solve our immediate problems, unemployment, the rise of populism. They have no concrete ideas, and it is disappointing,” said one.

The votes for the presidency will be cast on Friday.

Talking tough

Earlier in the day, opening the liberal congress, the EP group leader Guy Verhofstadt didn’t mince words on Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, a former liberal himself.

“Our presence here is a clear ‘No’ to the ‘illiberal state’ of Mr. Orban. Russia is an illiberal state. China is. Venezuela is. North-Korea is one. Let me be clear: there is no place for North Koreas or Venezuelas in Europe,” he said.

Verhofstadt added: “He is also our problem, a European problem. Orban is Europe’s moral crisis. Instead of defending our European values, we tolerate him. We barely react.”

He called the conservative European People’s Party, Orban's European family “spineless” for defending him against criticism.

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