Catherine Bearder writes … Back to work in the European Parliament

European Parliament, StrasbourgIn May’s European elections, it was liberals across the EU who stood up against the growing tide of nationalists, anti-Europeans and populists. Today, the newly elected MEPs met for the first time in Strasbourg to officially open the 8th European Parliament.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the political group with which Liberal Democrats sit in the European Parliament, took a big hit when we lost all of my hardworking Lib Dem colleagues and nine German FDP MEPs. But it is not all doom and gloom. Liberals topped the polls in the Netherlands, and our numbers have been boosted by new liberal parties from Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic, meaning we are still the fourth largest group with 68 MEPs.

ALDE are now more determined than ever to make the EU work more transparently and better for people and businesses across the continent to be able to tackle the big challenges of our time. We need a well-functioning EU to boost a sustainable economic recovery, fight climate change effectively and keep our streets safe.

That’s why ALDE decided to form a stable coalition with the two largest groups in the European Parliament – the centre-right Christian Democrat’s European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), home of the British Labour party. Being part of this coalition means we will be able to demand some distinctively liberal policies in Europe, especially on issues such as the environment, civil liberties, transparency and trade.

Meanwhile, our coalition partners in the UK have been scraping the bottom of the barrel for partners to form their political group. Eurosceptic and far-right parties have now joined forces with the Conservatives as they become the third largest group in an effort to lure away MEPs from UKIP’s political family.  The Tories’ European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR) have allied themselves with some controversial parties such as the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party in addition to a dubious Bulgarian MEP who has lashed out against migrants Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst.

UKIP have also gathered some strange parties and characters, including the comedian Grillo’s group from Italy, a defector from the French National Front and the far-right Swedish Democrats.

It remains to be seen whether the new Tory and UKIP groups will stand the test of time trying to hold together the controversial and nationalist parties they have assembled.

I will now focus on the policy and reform agenda that we as Liberal Democrats set out during the elections. As a full member of the Environment Committee, I will work towards sensible policies to tackle climate change and protect biodiversity. I will also continue to drive and support our successful ALDE SME campaign to help businesses create sustainable jobs and growth by cutting red tape and improving access to finance and the single market. As for the new EU cap on roaming fees that comes into force today after Lib Dem pressure during the last parliament, I will continue our fight to make sure that by 2015 there will be no extra charges for using your mobile in another EU country.

* Catherine Bearder is a Liberal Democrat MEP for the South East and Leader of the European Parliament Liberal Democrat Group.

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16 Comments

  • matt (Bristol) 1st Jul '14 - 5:24pm

    “Being part of this coalition means we will be able to demand some distinctively liberal policies in Europe, especially on issues such as the environment, civil liberties, transparency and trade.”

    As much as I applaud constructive coalitionism and compromise, is there not an extremely high risk that this grand coalition will be seen and derided in this country as an undemocratic cosy club by those outside the coalition who see themselvees (sometimes erroneously) as (sham-) heroic defenders of national dignity and sovereignty, unless ALDE MEPs can demonstrate a simultaneous ability to hold policies developed by the coalition to hard scutiny, from within it?

    As the only LibDem MEP, you’re too precious to lose, you know.

  • Richard Dean 1st Jul '14 - 5:42pm

    MEPs need to get their PR into their heads. Only that last paragraph of this piece is interesting. Everything else serves to show how MEPs waste their time and our money.

  • Great to have your engagement here. As the sole Lib Dem representative, how do you plan on voting when it comes to Juncker’s confirmation? Obviously Nick has made his feelings clear, but you are part of the ELDR group who I assume will near unanimously back Juncker.

  • Congratulations Catherine on keeping your seat in the European Parliament.

    You don’t write many articles for LDV and I hope you will find the time to write a few more this year and in 2105 more than you wrote in 2012. I also hope you will engage with the comments made on your article as I would like all our Parliamentarians to engage rather than just report and only a few actually do it here.

    It would have been good to know what specific “distinctively liberal policies” ALDE are demanding.

    Unlike Richard Dean I found more of interest than just the last paragraph.

  • Sitting with someone who made comments about the Eurovision song contest is far less serious than sitting with the HZDS as you were doing until the election (to learn more, google Robert Remias assassination, Michal Kovac kidnapping or stories from 2002 where various people make it clear that Slovakia would not be welcome in the EU or NATO if HZDS won). You don’t list Slovakia is a country with a new liberal party in the parliament – presumably from your point of view the one HZDS vote is worth as much as the Sloboda a Solidarita vote in the great game.

  • Charles Rothwell 2nd Jul '14 - 8:02am

    I am surprised not to find more analysis/comments re the Party’s sister party in Germany, the FDP (Free Democratic Party) whom Catherine mentions in her report. As she says, they were slaughtered on the same scale as LD representation was (loss of 9 MEPs) and this followed their bombing in last autumn’s federal German elections where (for the first time since 1949) they failed to gain more than the 5% hurdle needed to gain representation in the Bundestag. Overall, these figures mean that the FDP is basically faced with having to rebuild the party entirely, starting at local/regional levels in seeking to reestablish its credibility in Landtag (federal state parliament) elections and elsewhere before getting back into national and European representation successfully. The reasons for this catastrophic situation are diverse but certainly include the FDP leadership’s decision in the 1980s/90s to abandon the centre-left position it had come to adopt in the 1960s/70s (Freiburg Theses) and try and transform itself into some kind of German mini-me Thatcherite party of untrammelled market forces and minimal taxation which increasingly came to its being dubbed the “party without a heart”. Secondly, it lost it ‘protest vote’ component as new players appeared on the field (the Greens and the (brand new) eurosceptic Alternative for Germany. Finally, the party leadership in the past few years proved totally inept (after the talented Guido Westerwelle was deposed in a classic case of internal back-stabbing and replaced by two characters who increasingly became the ‘Laurel & Hardy’ of German politics and were mercilessly portrayed in German satirical TV programmes like ‘the Heute Show’, Phillip Roessler and Rainer Bruedeler. So there you have it; a former centre-left party which moves hard right, loses the protest vote to new comer parties who are able to tap into voter discontent more effectively and poor leadership which does not resonate with the electorate and is a major factor in driving the party into the abyss.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Jul '14 - 9:00am

    @Peter: I’ll be interested to know as well. I would expect our MEP to act as an ALDE MEP (as indeed they have done in the past when we had a plurality of them) rather than as a representative of the Westminster-based national party leadership.

  • @ Peter Rothwell

    “So there you have it; a former centre-left party which moves hard right”

    i.e. Zero comparison with the Liberal Democrats in the UK, then.

  • Sorry, @ Charles Rothwell

  • Charles Rothwell 2nd Jul '14 - 10:27am

    I must say my heart sinks when I see the palaces the EP has built for itself in recent years (as in the photo at the beginning of the article above) and Lord alone knows what an unemployed 20 year old Greek or Spaniard feels. I do hope they do not one day come to occupy the same status as historical curios which the former grand palaces of the Habsburgs have since 1918/the collapse of the Dual Monarchy. Unless the EU starts to wake up and ‘smell the coffee’, though, taking immediate steps to deal with the unmitigated disaster of unemployment, alienation, falling living standards and political extremism growing like a cancer across its southern belt (as it should have done with the ‘Lisbon Agenda’ of 2000 which was still-born to avoid all of this happening in the first place instead of allowing the banks and construction sector to just let rip and take control), which group is in bed with which other group in the EP is going to seem totally and bizarrely meaningless.

  • Charles: I agree that the Euro Parliament often does not do itself any favours in creating the right impression to the public. But ‘palace building’ is not actually their fault.

    The French government built the one in the photo; the EP hates going there but national governments force them to go once a month and indeed took the EP to court when they tried to miss out August. And because of the above the EP is not allowed to call Brussels its home and therefore cannot cannot reduce the costs of its Brussels operation, which legally is only a temporary, second home.

    All the fault of national governments – who I suspect quite like the fact that the public then have something with which to attack the EP.

  • daft ha'p'orth 2nd Jul '14 - 11:27am

    @Charles Rothwell
    ‘palaces built in recent years (as in the photo above)’
    Um, unless you know something about its construction that I don’t, I’m pretty sure the Strasbourg buildings were built in the headily optimistic late ’90s. I used to walk past regularly back in the day. Yes, they are in pretty bad taste, and the Louise Weiss building in particular is a perfect example of a poorly built heap of grief (nothing works, you can’t find anything and bits of it keep falling off). Even so, as I understand it, overly bombastic glass-heavy office buildings are pretty much standard examples of the contemporary architectural ‘tastes’ of the era. Frankfurt is up to the neck in similarly showy constructions. London has quite a few of them too, 8 Canada Square and the Citigroup Centre dating from the same era, and later constructions such as the Broadgate Tower and Willis Building.

    If the EU’s architectural choices say anything, it is that the EU is dominated by unimaginative and slightly pompous bureaucrats who think like bankers. But it’s important to keep the construction date in mind. Even so, you’re right that they could’ve done better. Looking at the Welsh Senedd does show that there are architects who are able to design glassy buildings that do not scream the message, ‘Who cares about you? I’m all right, Jack!’

  • Charles Rothwell 2nd Jul '14 - 12:24pm

    Thanks for the comments/clarifications Stephen and daft ha’p’oth. I must admit I had not checked on their years of construction, but they just seem to have been on the news quite a lot recently (hardly surprising, given the EP elections, I suppose!) As with the salaries, staffing, subsidies, pensions paid to MEPs, the building just seem absolutely and totally out of proportion with what the EU should have stood for (serving the peoples of its constituent states, not aggrandizing the egos of its insider operatives) at any time. As regards the Strasbourg-Brussels shuttle, the fact that this farce has been allowed to continue for so long (despite the very best endeavours of former LD MEPs like Edward Macmillan-Scott) is just disgraceful and further serves to undermine confidence in the EU’s ability to link with the people who are paying for it (at least those fortunate enough to be in work!)

  • Steve Griffiths 2nd Jul '14 - 1:16pm

    @Charles Rothwell

    I thoroughly agree with your comments regarding the fate of the German FDR and I too wonder why little heed seems to have been paid to the reasons that lead to its recent demise. On another thread on LDV, here:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/ldvideo-david-laws-on-the-success-of-the-orange-book-10-years-on-41134.html

    You can listen to David Laws say the following:

    “…after this extraordinary recession and slump indeed, since 2007 – 2008, economic liberalism as a philosophy rides high, both here and abroad”. He goes on to say “…there is no longer on display any convincing alternative to the economic liberalism contained in the Orange Book”.

    It seems to me that the lessons of that party’s demise haven’t been learnt, and David Laws seem to be putting his hands to his ears and going “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you”.

  • Catherine, Like Michael BG I hope you will find the time to write more articles for LDV and engage with the community here.

    I particularly welcome your determination to make the EU work more transparently and better for its people. In that spirit can I ask how well you and other MEPs are kept informed and updated about ongoing negotiations with the USA for the proposed Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its services counterpart Trade in Services Agreement (TISA)? It is reported that draft texts are not available for scrutiny to public interest bodies but that selected large corporations are actively involved in shaping them. I understand that the treaties will even remain secret as far as the public is concerned for some years after they come into force. Try as I might I cannot see how this can possibly be a healthy development.

  • @ Charles Rothwell – thanks for the brief summary of the collapse of the FDP. Who would have thought it!!!

    @ Steve Griffiths – I don’t know what David Laws is smoking but he should give it up PDQ. He is quite bright enough to know that “the economic liberalism contained in the Orange Book” is merely the political face of the neoclassical school of economics which is just one of several schools, some of which reach very different conclusions. Actually, the direction of causality is the other way round – it’s not the case that an economic theory leads to certain political conclusions but rather that an economic rationale is sought out to justify the desired political outcome. As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it in Moral Man and Immoral Society, “Whenever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise”.

    As justification neoclassical economics is remarkably threadbare. For instance it contains no real theory of either money or banking; all transactions are assumed to be essentially barter so money is just a convenient lubricant with no wider significance while banks are taken to be just like any other sort of company, structurally speaking. That is why most economists didn’t see the financial crisis coming and why they are so curiously unable to offer a convincing explanation of what went wrong even after all this time.

    Liberals of a social liberal persuasion should take heart; other schools which look to the evidence rather than merely seeking to put lipstick on a pig come to much more congenial conclusions about how society should best be organised. They DID see the crisis coming and offer radically different prescriptions for recovery but they are *gasp* radical, and that would never do!

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