24th Mar 2018

European Liberals pin hopes on Macron

  • Emmanuel Macron 'will be part of our family', Alde president Hans van Baalen said at the party conference (Photo: Alde/Fickr)

Is French president Emmanuel Macron the future of European Liberals?

"This is the million euro question in this congress," Albert Rivera, the leader of Spain's Ciudadanos party told EUobserver at the annual gathering of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (Alde) in Amsterdam on Friday-Sunday (1-3 December).

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  • 'We need to debate exactly what Emmanuel Macron means with his ideas,' said Dutch PM Mark Rutte (r) (Photo: con)

"Liberals will conquer Europe," the party's president Hans van Baalen said, setting an objective of 100 seats in the next European Parliament at the May 2019 elections.

"Macron is included. He will be part of our family," he told party members - although no official delegation of Macron's La Republique en Marche (LRM) party was in Amsterdam.

Van Baalen argued that the French president "has not only said he wants to reform France, he's doing it. And a reformed France is a reformed Europe."

"We need to support Macron and we need to support a revitalised France and European Union," he said.

Speaking later to EUobserver, Van Baalen said he has had discussions with LRM.

"We have decided to cooperate with Emmanuel Macron," he said.

"He is the French president, he will not say: 'I joined this or that'," the Alde chief replied, when this website pointed out that Macron has made no reference so far to any political alliance ahead of the European elections.

"But there will be a deal, probably after the 2019 elections, to form a parliamentary group," added Van Baalen, who is an MEP for the Dutch VVD party.

He explained that he wanted the future Alde group to include French MEPs from En Marche and from the centrist Modem party - two Modem MEPs are already sitting with Alde - as well as MEPs from the centre-right Republicans party who would not want to sit with the EPP group.

While Macron is a fascinating figure for many Alde members, an alliance with him is also raising questions about his impact on the organisation and ideas of the party.

"It will be a cooperation between equals," Van Baalen said in his speech to delegates, insisting that there would be "no hostile takeovers".

"We will not eat Macron and Macron will not eat us," he said.

An alliance with Macron "could be a good idea not just for the Liberals but for the future of Europe," Rivera said, noting that Alde and LRM are "probably the two most pro-European" forces.

But the Ciudadanos leader noted that it was "too early" to say whether a rapprochement can happen.

"This is a decision that has to come from both sides," he said. "We don't know what Macron is going to decide in the future."

"It could be a win-win alliance, or with a bad side for us," a national party official told this website, noting that Macron could also try to use Alde for his own purposes - or even try to poach some Alde members to build his own political group.

But the official, who deals with relations with other national liberal parties, noted that parties' identities and traditions are strong, which could prove a difficulty for Macron.

"I don't think we should speculate on this kind of scenario," former Estonian prime minister Taavi Roivas told this website.

He noted that Macron's "campaign and work afterwards" demonstrated "clear liberal views", and that "his movement would be most probably welcomed by Alde members."

But "we cannot decide for him," he said.

Manifesto that people will read

Roivas, who is now an MP for the Estonian Reform Party, has been tasked with drafting the Alde manifesto for the 2019 European elections.

The 12-member manifesto drafting committee includes former Nato secretary general and Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as well as former UK deputy PM Nick Clegg - a gesture to "stay close to the Brits" despite Brexit, Van Baalen said.

"It is a very difficult task," Roivas said. "We need to touch so many important issues and put them in a format that people will actually read."

Another task for the manifesto writers will be to reconcile the numerous views within a party that gather traditional liberals and social-liberals, EU federalists and EU pragmatists.

On one hand, Guy Verhofstadt, the Alde group leader in the European Parliament, argued that the "real" European Union "doesn't exist today" and that the EU now is a "weak confederation of nation states."

Going "step by step doesn't work today," the former Belgian prime minister said. "Unanimity has to be abolished as fast as possible."

"Federal Europe is not the answer," Dutch PM Mark Rutte replied in his speech.

"Integration for integration's sake will only harm public support for EU," he insisted.

While some of these fault lines were visible at Alde's previous congress last year, the relationship with Macron and his ideas added a new element in the party's internal debate.

'Careful' with Macron's ideas

"I like many of Emmanuel Macron's proposals on fighting terrorism, on asylum policy, etc… But there is one issue where I will argue that we have to be very careful; that is about the future of the monetary union," Rutte said.

"We need to debate exactly what Emmanuel Macron means with his ideas," he said, referring to the risk of a so-called transfer union, in which "we should transfer some of our wealth to the countries that have not implemented the necessary reforms."

"I would be careful if that were to be part of a French-German axis," the Dutch leader insisted, also indicating serious debate at the EU leaders table.

Rutte, who also warned against "politics based on symbolism," told delegates that "before we develop new policies, before we set up new agencies, before we think up new rules and regulations, we need to ask ourselves what problem does this really solve?"

In his speech at the Sorbonne university in September, Macron proposed among other things a new agency for innovation and a trade prosecutor office. He also called for a eurozone budget as well as taxes on internet companies and on CO2.

Germany's Christian Lindner also expressed scepticism with some of Macron's ideas, in the name of liberal values.

The leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) explained to Alde fellows that Europe was one of the issues why he left talks to form a coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Greens.

"I disagree with ideas such as budget for EMU [the economic and monetary union], similar ideas of new fiscal capacities. We don't need them," he said.

"We stick to [liberal] ideas," he said, arguing that leaving coalition talks was "a bold decision, a difficult decision."

The Liberals will adopt their manifesto at their congress next year, when they will also choose their lead candidate to the European elections - the Spitzenkandidat in EU jargon.

Vestager for 'Spitzenkandidat'?

Verhofstadt was Alde's candidate in 2014. In Amsterdam, the name of EU competition Margrete Vestager was on many lips, although not officially, after a well-received speech on Friday.

"Vestager is very cool but I believe in democracy," Begona Villacis, Ciudadanos leader in Madrid, told EUobserver, referring to next year's vote.

"We are not yet in this position to name any names about potential lead candidates," Roivas said.

He noted that apart from the Danish commissioner, "there are strong candidates whose popularity and ideas have reached far beyond the borders of their own countries and the Brussels bubble."

Verhofstadt remains the most known face of Liberals, especially in the European Parliament, where he is also the Brexit coordinator.

But some party members are still disappointed by his attempts, earlier this year, to make an alliance with the Italian populist Five Star Movement. Others also think that the party needs new leaders.

When asked by this website whether Verhofstadt could project a modern image for the next campaign, one party official answered simply: "Do you?"

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