Tuesday

23rd Apr 2019

Optimistic liberals look for more influence

  • "We will never surrender to radicals from the right or the left," said Alde president Hans van Baalen (r) (Photo: Alde/flickr)

Times are difficult for the EU, liberalism and free trade, but the mood was upbeat at the European liberals' congress in Warsaw on Friday and Saturday (2-3 December).

First because the Liberal Democrats, the UK member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (Alde), won a by-election in Richmond Park on Thursday, their first win since the June EU referendum.

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

  • Polish liberal leader Ryszard Petru (l) with Dutch PM Mark Rutte (r) (Photo: Alde/flickr)

"It's an anti-Brexit vote," according to Alde's president Hans van Baalen, who said that the by-election was the first battle in the "fight for liberalism" in the UK.

The second reason for cheer was that seven of their bloc currently have a seat at the European Council, the summit of EU leaders.

With a Czech general election next year where the current liberal finance minister Andrej Babis is a favourite, Alde leader in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt said he was confident they would soon add an eighth leader and become the biggest group in the Council.

In a Europe where nationalist parties are on the rise, the liberals wanted to present themselves as an alternative.

"We will never surrender to radicals from the right or the left," Van Baalen told delegates, setting the goal of sending back 100 MEPs to the European Parliament in 2019.

This is the number of MEPs liberals had between 2004 and 2009, compared with 69 now. Eurosceptics and the far-right have 83.

"People feel more and more that the alternative to not falling back into nationalism is liberalism, with pro-European and democratic policies," Verhofstadt told EUobserver.

"It's going to be an enormous battle," he said.

"We know that populism is not a true ideology and that too simple solutions cannot fool voters for a long time," Taavi Roivas, who was Estonia's prime minister until late November, told this website.

He said he was sure that "the majority of European people will listen to reason rather than to emotions" and help liberals extend their influence on European politics.

Drawing on this confidence, Alde leaders unveiled the party's new logo, all pink and blue, and made the case for liberalism and free trade.

The congress in Warsaw was a message to the Polish government, against which the EU has launched a rule of law procedure, and a show of support to opposition party Nowoczesna.

"Here starts the resistance against the new adepts of the so called, illiberal state, the champions of nationalism, the cronies of populism," said Verhofstadt.

"We don't want to follow the Hungarian way," Nowoczesna leader Ryszard Petru told the congress, adding that his party was the "most pro-Europe in Poland".

Margrete Vestager and Cecilia Malmstroem, two of the five liberal EU commissioners, came as guest stars, with Malmstroem, the trade commissioner, reassuring delegates that free trade is the future despite growing opposition to EU deals with the US and Canada.

'Dream of a European republic'

Referring the Donald Trump's election, she said the EU could “fill the void” if the US becomes "more inward-looking in the coming years".

"We can show that protectionism is not what the world needs right now and that open borders and trade are compatible with sustainable development and high standards,” she said.

Behind the optimism and the show of unity, some delegates also suggested that Alde did not agree on everything and is still longing for influence.

While Verhofstadt is about to publish Europe's Last Chance, a book where he argues that “the European states must form a more perfect union”, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte voiced his opposition to a more integrated EU.



He said that the answer to European citizens' concerns was not "the dream of a European republic".

"This is crazy, it doesn't work," he said, adding that "99 percent of our focus" should be on implementing structural reforms and fiscal discipline in southern Europe.

Rutte also said that he was "not in favour of EU army", another project pushed by some of his party fellows. "Nato should be the cornerstone of European defence," he insisted.

Lack of strategy

Some delegates also told EUobserver that for all its dynamism and strong words, the party lacked a real strategy to be as visible and influential than its centre-right and centre-left counterparts, the European People's Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES).

The two parties, mainly because they are in power in the EU biggest countries, are the ones who call the shots in EU summits, for instance. And in the EU parliament, liberals are only the fourth largest group.

A first test of Alde's influence could be Verhofstadt's bid for the European Parliament's presidency.

The party has not yet filled any top jobs in EU institutions.

But Verhofstadt will run only if he gets support from other groups against the EPP and Social-Democrat candidates. For that reason, the party kept quiet about it in Warsaw.

EU commission plans bolstering rule of law toolbox

As EU concerns over rule of law in some member states grow, the commission opens a debate on tools to discipline unruly member states. The EU executive has launched a new probe against Poland, and put Romania on the spot.

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.

EU countries push for new rule of law surveillance

Germany and Belgium have put forward a proposal for a "peer review" of EU countries' legal systems as member states and EU institutions struggle with disciplining member states that break EU rules.

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. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  2. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  3. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  4. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  9. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  10. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan

Latest News

  1. Romania drafts EU code on NGO migrant rescues
  2. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Malta shamed on press unfreedom
  3. EU drafts $20bn US sanctions list in aviation dispute
  4. Brunei defends stoning to death of gay men in EU letter
  5. US Democrats side with Ireland on Brexit
  6. Wifi or 5G to connect EU cars? MEPs weigh in
  7. How Brexit may harm the new EU parliament
  8. EU parliament backs whistleblower law

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  6. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  7. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  9. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  12. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us