Wednesday

16th Jan 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.

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  • 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.

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