At last week’s Congress of the European Liberal Democrats, the umbrella grouping of liberal parties across the continent, Graham Watson, our list MEP in South West England (and Gibraltar), was elected to the position of President. Here are his thoughts on the task ahead…
Last week I had the honour of being elected the new President of ELDR, the European political party federation to which the Liberal Democrats belong, at its annual congress in sunny Palermo, Italy.
I was unopposed as a candidate, so the result was not quite the surprise as it might otherwise have been. I’m not sure whether the fact that no one else came forward was a sign of our outgoing President, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck MEP, having set the bar so high, or the fact that I was the only one foolish enough to take on the job! But I am glad nonetheless that I received near unanimous support from the party delegates.
Our three key building blocks for a Liberal Europe are, in my view, efficient capital markets, openness to new ideas and upholding the rule of law. We must regulate financial markets but not strangle them, as some socialists would. We must welcome new ideas not resist progress in science, as the Greens often do.
And we must insist on the rule of law, not turning a blind eye to illegality, like the European People’s Party.
The EPP (to whom the Tories used to belong until they became too extremist for them!) cynically support the likes of Berlusconi, Basescu and Boyko Borissov – the cowboys of democracy. The President of the EPP should step down out of shame. They have not just remained silent at the transgressions of Berlusconi in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungary – when Orban came to the European Parliament they gave him a standing ovation!
Liberals support European integration despite its challenges and inconveniences, not because we want to centralise everything but because integration is the most effective lever we have for regaining control over our destinies. Population growth, climate change, organised crime: all these are supranational challenges requiring supranational responses. These are challenges with which EU countries, alone, cannot cope. Liberals are at the forefront of this.
If our European party is to help achieve all this we need three reforms.
First, we need to re-engage people with our parties. We need to better distil our message and to better communicate it. We can learn from Obama’s campaign, and some fresh thinking about how liberals communicate would be useful.
Second, we must seize the supranational stage. In the jigsaw that is European construction, supranational parties are the missing piece. Rather than 27 national elections for the European Parliament we need a truly European election. We must push for the election of at least some MEPs from supranational, pan-European lists. Our citizens must know their vote has an impact on the formation of the EU’s ‘government’, so we should link it to the choice of the President of the European Commission.
Third, we must open our doors to embrace new member parties. Some of them may not be able to call themselves ‘Liberal’ in countries where the name has become a dirty word. They may be campaigners against corruption, like our friends in Italy in Italia dei Valori or in Vece Verejna in the Czech Republic. They may be radicals, in the Transnational Radical Party or in Palikot in Poland. Or they may style themselves democrats or republicans, like our friends in France. But they are all allied to our great Liberal tradition. We sit with some on the Committee of the Regions, the Council of Europe and in the European Parliament.
We must ally with them on the issues which matter most – just as the Liberals and the SDP joined forces back in 1988.
I will strain every sinew to leave to my successor a stronger party than the one I have been elected to serve. But I have no illusions about the scale of the challenge.
In seven of the 27 EU countries we have no ELDR member party.
Where five years ago we had eight Liberal prime ministers around the Council table we now have only two, and just 10% of MEPs. In many countries where we govern – like here in the UK – the opinion polls hardly look good.
It won’t be easy. The going will be tough. But let’s pluck up courage and be prepared to live a little dangerously. If we do not, we risk not living at all.