Guy Verhofstadt writes… 2014 European elections and the challenge for Liberals

This year’s European elections are bound to be a tough fight. Eurosceptics such as UKIP and the French National Front are determined to turn back the clock and tear down the internal market, stoking xenophobia and putting millions of jobs at risk. In the UK context, the Conservatives appear to want to throw in the towel and leave the EU, whilst Labour are still sitting uncomfortably on the fence. Only Lib Dems are clear where they stand as the party of In.

Being the main pro-European party, across the EU, though does not mean defending the status quo. As Liberals we must put forward a clear alternative. We want a new and better Europe, one that goes beyond the old divisions of North versus South, austerity versus growth and Europe versus its member states, and that delivers prosperity and security for its citizens.

First of all, we should reform the EU so that it focusses on its core business. The EU should not be concerned with trivial matters such as the olive oil on restaurant tables or the amount of water a toilet flushes. But it must be able to intervene effectively in order to tackle global challenges such as the economic crisis, international crime and major political upheavals in our own backyard. A more efficient EU will regain credibility and legitimacy and strengthen the influence of its member states on the world stage.

Second, we need to complete Europe’s single market so that it can act as an engine for jobs and growth. We have to tackle the obstacles and lack of competition in many key sectors such as telecoms, energy and the digital economy that prevent our businesses and entrepreneurs from expanding. And we must pursue an ambitious global trading agenda through the completion of free trade deals with the US, India and Japan.

Third, we need to give the EU more clout when it comes to defending civil liberties. As liberals we have fought hard for data protection and the right to privacy, for women and LGBT rights and against xenophobia. But ongoing threats such as mass surveillance by intelligence services and the rise of the extreme right in Europe show that the fight is far from over. This goes to the very heart of what it means to be a liberal; it cannot be left to those with half-hearted convictions.

This European campaign can and will make a difference. Citizens are fed up with defeatism and negative messages. They want to hear solutions. They want to gain hope, not lose it. But if we are to deliver, we must come back with a strong liberal group, with as many MEPs as possible and from as many countries as possible. To remain the kingmaker during crucial decisions, we have to remain at least the third largest political group in Parliament. And to be taken seriously as a political force in Europe, we have to have members from across the continent.

So let us be ready, hone our arguments and make the case for a Liberal Europe that works. The fight for a new and better Europe starts now, with this campaign.

* Guy Verhofstadt is president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament and was Prime Minister of Belgium from 1999 to 2008

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  • But ongoing threats such as mass surveillance by intelligence services

    Shouldn’t the exact balance of the trade-off between liberty and security (and it is always a trade-off) be up to each individual nation to decide? This seems exactly the sort of thing were both national circumstances (some nations have active internal separatist terrorist groups, others don’t; some are targeted more by international criminal groups than others) and national characteristics (some populations are a lot more more relaxed about surveillance than others, perhaps due to experiences in their history) and different such that a ‘one size fits all’ pan-European approach is inappropriate.

  • Gut Verhofstadt, is a dangerous man. He has stated categorically that all individual EU nations MUST give up their sovereignty to a Federal United States of Europe. If only UK liberals were as honest about the real project agenda?.

  • Being the main pro-European party, across the EU, though does not mean defending the status quo.

    Indeed it doesn’t but anyone in this country would be forgiven for thinking that it does. That part of the UK establishment that is in favour of the EU (and I especially mean the Lib Dems) usually just campaign for the EU in a wholly undifferentiated way – “the party of In” being typical. We are NOT invited to support any different vision or understanding of the EU – just to be ‘In’. So the usual approach is to frighten people with somewhat unconvincing scare stories about the millions of jobs that will be lost if the UK leaves. The argument is implicitly that being in the EU may be unappealing but outside is even worse. The result is that Lib Dem campaigning on the EU is almost entirely reactive and almost entirely fought on ground of UKIP’s choosing.

    What I want to hear is how specifically European liberals propose to redefine the EU’s scope to introduce real subsidiarity (not just lip service) and cut it back to the minimum necessary (not including olive oil in restaurants!), to introduce democracy, to build coalitions with like minded people across countries and so on. At this point in time with elections looming a few rather vague aspirations to do Good Things really isn’t adequate.

    Also it would help if ALDE did NOT support the proposed EU-US trade deal which is not really about trade at all (except in the rather strained sense of ‘WireDonkey’ above) but really a gift to multinationals that will place them in many respects above national laws and regulations on the basis that if they make ever-bigger profits (even at the risk of the environment or anything else that gets in the way) then that will someone benefit the rest of us. Yes, it’s Thatcher’s totally discredited trickle down theory in a new guise.

  • Not all the members of our party want to stay in the EU. According to this poll (link below), 22% of Lib Dem members want an unconditional exit. Curiously that is more than the percentage of Labour members who want to exit, at 19%. If we want to really cast ourselves as the pro-EU party, the message needs to reflect the wishes of our members. It does seem from this poll that Labour is more pro-EU than we are.

    Are we just kidding ourselves? Is it that we have some vociferous senior members of the party who are pro-EU, and that most of us either want out or want a serious renegotiation?

    Can we have some honesty and clarity of thought please?

  • Antony – even so, it is not good is it? We poll around 12% currently, does this mean that at the Euro election we lose two thirds of our vote? We will not get many Lib Dem MEPs elected on a 4% of the vote. My concern is that then we will have lost our core voters for the foreseeable future, including the General Election. Am I wrong to be so pessimistic? Please write something hopeful!

  • “The way to look at is this. We are the Party of In … In polls 35-4% of the public support UK membership. They should all vote Liberal Democrat and even half of them equates to many more votes than we are currently polling.”

    Actually, I think this is the way the party should be thinking about a wide range of issues. Even if only a minority of the electorate currently support a liberal position on any given issue, that still leaves plenty of scope for it to be attractive to more than 10% of the electorate.

    If only Nick Clegg could have chosen a slightly less grating phrase than “The Party of In” to express the idea …

  • What on earth do the editors think they are doing inviting Guy Verhofstadt on to LibDemVoice? Does the Party have a death wish?

  • If you believe press reports, the outcome of the Euro elections is almost a foregone conclusion. I do not want to be pessimistic but I think we are going to have a difficult time. Seemingly, the country has taken to UKIP like bees to a honey pot. How then do we argue effectively against the UKIP threat? I think we need to campaign harder for what we believe in by presenting concrete evidence to persuade voters that the EU really does benefit them. So far, I would venture to suggest that nobody either inside or outside our party has done that very effectively.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Jan '14 - 6:55am

    It’s nice of Guy to write to us on here and I agree about the EU doing less of the little things and more of the big things. I’ve actually been an EU federalist for years, but only under certain conditions. We get more influence that way too.


  • Eddie, we really have to make the case that more influence in the EU is worth the pain. People do question our membership of this ‘club’ at a time when there is a housing crisis and increasing numbers of eastern Europeans sleeping rough on our streets and begging and stealing. How do we make the case for greater union? It is hard for the average person to see the advantages compared to the disadvantages. We seriously do need to make the case in concrete terms, not abstracts such as ‘influence’, otherwise we will never get a grip on UKIP. We are seen as living in ivory towers.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Jan '14 - 9:02am

    Put it this way: as a financial adviser I find it a pain that my market is effectively restricted to the UK because of all the different laws. I’m no defeatist – I even started to specialise in US citizens in London – but more Europe would help.

    I can come across as Eurosceptic, but that’s only when I put my political head on and not my business one. Plus, it’s easy to sound eurosceptic compared to some in the Lib Dems :).

  • Sean O'Curneen 14th Jan '14 - 12:52pm

    John Dunn, Guy Verhofstadt has spoken about sovereignty, yes, but to explain how nation states are losing sovereignty anyway in this globalised world, and that the EU is a mechanism by which to regain that sovereignty. Here is an extract from a speech he gave in Hannover in September 2012:

    “But what about the irrevocable loss of power? Do you not think that in today’s world we are in danger of losing power, losing power to globalisation, to the markets, in short, to the modern world. On this huge loss of power, nobody has been consulted. Nobody has agreed. Indeed, the people haven’t been asked. People too often are not even aware of it.

    So, not a transfer of power, but a loss of power is the risk today. Not “Brussels”, but a new world order dominated by the BRIC countries is the challenge today…

    And this is precisely the “raison d’être”, the reason of the European project. Integrating Europe is a vast project in regaining sovereignty. It is a project to give citizens… back control over the world we are living in. “

  • Mick Taylor 14th Jan '14 - 1:34pm

    For every European election we have fought as a party we have tried to pretend that the election isn’t about Europe and that we somehow could be all things to everyone on the EU question. Most literature hardly ever mentioned the EU at all. In Leeds North West we actually tried squeezing the third party vote in a PR system!

    So to be the party in In is the only option when every other party is either against or ambivalent about the EU. We want to stay in the EU – albeit a reformed EU – so it makes complete sense to campaign for it in the way we’re doing. Telling people the benefits of being in the EU, in terms of jobs and our economy is actually critically important, because an EU exit would be a disaster for our economy.

    What would many of the people who have posted have us do? Tell blatant lies like UKIP and the Tory right? Or sit on the fence and make vaguely anti EU statements like the Labour Party?

    Guy Verhofsteft is unashamedly a federalist. So am I. We cannot exist in isolation in the world and pretend we have sovereignty when we haven’t. What is much more important is WHO controls WHAT at each level. At least we have a plan. None of the others do

  • Alex Macfie 14th Jan '14 - 1:38pm

    The title (“… challenge for Liberals”) suggests the article is promising, as is suggests that someone is getting the point of European elections, which is to explain what MEPs of your party group have done and will do to shape EU-wide law and policy. But it still focuses too much on the pro/anti-EU debate, and so do most of the comments.

    Being the main pro-European party, across the EU, though does not mean defending the status quo.

    Of course it doesn’t, and the fact that we feel we have to say this at all shows how fundamentally wrong the whole EU debate is. No-one would ever suggest that being pro-UK (as in favouring the continuation of the UK as a state) meant defending everything Whitehall and the government of the day did. General election campaigns would be rather strange if fought this way. So why do we need to explain the obvious with respect to the EU? Besides, the role of the European Parliament is to scrutinise and amend the work of the Commission and Council in shaping EU legislation. Defending everything they ever did would be rather self-defeating. And of course that is not what happens.
    Yes, make sure that the EU acts only where appropriate. But what matters isn’t just how much or little EU law there is, but also whether it is good or bad law. The problem with the poposal to ban refillable olive oil jugs in restaurants (dropped after public outcry) wasn’t so much that it was the EU sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong, but that it is simply a bad law. It would be just as bad a law if it were proposed by the UK government. [And let’s not forget that the UK government did not oppose the olive oil law in the Council.] There are many laws and proposals from UK government departments that we don’t like. But we don’t turn discussions on them into discussions about the UK itself, the way that discussion on EU law seems to automatically turn into a discussion on the EU itself.
    An example of where MEPs (led by ALDE, and more specifically by UK Lib Dems) have amended originally bad EU legislation is on e-cigarettes, whuich the Commission and Council (including the UK government) want to regulate as medicines, but the European Parliament voted to make available on the same basis as tobacco.
    We should be talking more about these kind of victories, where our MEPs have stood up to the unelected EU institutions to improve (and sometimes vote down) proposed EU laws. That is MEPs doing their job.

    On the EU-US trade deal, GF is referring to investor-state dispute resolution, which would allow foreign investors to challenge any national law in a private tribunal (consisting of corporate lawyers) on the basis that it “expropriates” investors’ profits. They don’t even have to exhaust local legal remedies before using this tribunal. I agree that we should oppose and vote against any trade deal that includes this. Our MEPs rightly voted down ACTA in 2012; we must be vigilant and be prepared to vote down any international trade agreement designed to tie the EU to laws designed to favour vested private interests.

    We should make much mroe of the fact that as far as UK politics is concerned, the European Parliament is a Coalition-free Zone, and attack the Tories and the company they keep, and note the differences between our MEPs and theirs on issues such as climate change.

    Talking too much about being pro-EU means that we accept the UKIP framing of the European election debate as simply a matter of whether you are pro or anti-EU, when we should be challenging this and running a “first-order” election campaign, i.e. one that focuses on EU law and policy.

  • I think most people just don’t get either the potential power of ideas or the importance of the language that expresses them so liberal perspectives on the EU have missing in action for as long as I can remember. (Mick Taylor’s comment above about the lack of EU issues in Lib Dem campaigns speaks precisely to this).

    For instance it’s all very well to call oneself a ‘federalist’ but what do others understand by that? A while ago I asked a good friend and conservative councillor what he thought about the ‘federalist’ strand in the EU. After about five minutes the explosions subsided enough for me to get a word in edgeways and ask what he understood by the term. His explanation: centralised, top-down, undemocratic, unaccountable with bureaucrats in the driving seat. Well, I one hundred per cent agree with him about that although I am not sure what it should properly be called. Other conversations and usage I’ve spotted from time to time in the national press suggest that this is the majority (though perhaps not universal understanding) of ‘federal’ so I think we have to find other words.

    Another anecdote. I used to knew the retired editor of a right wing national paper who was archetypically UKIP in his views. He had a similarly explosive reaction to anything ‘federal’, and for basically the same reason so one day I asked him how he would feel about an ‘alternative EU’ that we might perhaps have in the distant future, one where government came in nested layers like Russian dolls with the higher levels doing only those things that were absolutely necessary to be done at the highest level like defence and with strong constitutional safeguards to stop them meddling in ‘lower’ levels of government. That would make perfect sense he agreed before volunteering that if such a system of government could be made to work then he would even be happy to see an EU army instead of the British, French, German etc. armies we have now. And this was a UKIPer!!!

    So why don’t liberals make a liberal case?

  • Mick Taylor 14th Jan '14 - 5:47pm

    Why don’t Liberals make a Liberal case?

    Put simply because far too many of our MPs still think the EU is a negative with their voters, despite clear evidence to the contrary. They appear to be scared witless than somehow to mention being in favour of the EU and in favour of federalism will somehow make them losers. Hence the not-so-secret campaign by Lib Dem MPs to stop Guy Verhofstedt being the ALDE candidate for President of the European Commission, because they think that this highly skilled and experienced politician will frighten UK voters.

    I fail to understand how going for the anti EU vote will benefit our party? There’s already a wide field of anti EU parties, UKIP, Conservatives and Labour. Yet despite a generation of anti EU propaganda by the British Press, some 35% of voters are firmly in favour of the EU. How can we lose votes by being the only party in favour of the EU? It’s a PR election. We get seats according to how many votes we get. It’s not first past the post. If we got even half of those in favour of the EU voting for us, we’d get more seats than we ever have in the past.

    Our previous, dubious, half hearted campaigns in euro elections have never got us a large vote. What’s not to like about an enthusiastic, positive campaign as the party of IN.

  • Neil Bradbury 14th Jan '14 - 10:49pm

    Guy is trying to put himself forward to be ALDEs candidate for the new President of the EU. Although it is unlikely that ALDEs candidate could win, I have always felt Guy cuts a provocative figure on the EU stage. I am not quite sure that this article says anything very specific but what I think it is meant to say is “vote for me” Lib Dem delegates coming to Brussels to decide who is going to be ALDEs candidate at the end of January

  • Alex Macfie 15th Jan '14 - 1:22pm

    @Mick Taylor: In London we also used a bar graph and 3rd-party squeezing slogan on our Euro leaflets last time around. Not very sensible. And nor is just not mentioning the EU and, for example, fighting Euro elections on purely domestic issues. Education, the NHS and local crime may well be important issues, but they are not issues over which the European Union has any competence, and we should not be putting stuff about these things in Euro election leaflets.
    However, rather than campaigning just for the EU, we should be campaigning for our specifically LIBERAL vision of the EU, in the same way as we campaign in UK elections for our liberal vision of the UK. [I said we shouldn’t campaign in Euro elections on domestic issues — well, whether you are pro or anti UK membership of the EU is actually a domestic issue.] So we should campaign on our approach as liberals to things such as trade policy, the CAP, fisheries, consumer protection, business regulation, civil liberties — issues over which the EU does have competence. It’s not just EU constitutional issues that matter. we shoulf be fighting this election as liberals rather than just as pro-Europeans.

  • Mick Taylor 15th Jan '14 - 2:57pm

    I agree with Alex MacFie. We should be putting forward our vision. My point was that setting ourselves up as neutral or anti has never worked (people don’t believe it anyway) but being positively pro a reformed EU and being clear about wanting to stay IN is a strategy for winning the votes of the substantial minority who are pro EU.

  • @ Mick Taylor

    So, in what way would you like to see the EU reformed?

    For myself wanting to stay IN is not an argument. If there really is an plan for reform then it would be spelt out. That it’s not suggests to me that it’s only a rhetorical commitment – that it’s just PR fluff. And, with the Lib Dem’s track record of making vague comments about the need for reform but actually supporting the status quo, that’s exactly what I conclude.

    Moreover, one of the key issues in a multi-tier polity is who does what (e.g. in this instance between the nations and the EU) which, entirely uncoincidentally, happens to be one of the things that gets eurosceptics most hot and bothered (that olive oil again for instance). Since as several comments on this thread note, Lib Dem EU campaigns habitually muddle up purely domestic issues including, as Alex Macfie says In/Out, then it’s pretty clear the Lib Dems haven’t got to first base.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Jan '14 - 6:53pm

    @GF: I don’t think the nation states can claim any credit over the olive oil issue: they voted in favour of the regulation in the Council. The UK abstained, and it was only after the outcry in the press that UK government ministers started saying the regulation was a bad idea. Similarly, the Council (in this case actively supported by the UK government) supported over-regulation of e-cigs, while the European Parliament (led by Lib Dems) voted for a light-touch approach. It is reasonable to suspect that if the olive oil regulation had got as far as the European Parliament, it would not have survived. In EU Politics, it tends to be the nation states that resist reform and wave through bad regulation (typically because they are in thrall to vested interests and not properly accountable), while the European Parliament supports reform and the interests of the people over vested national interests. We see this also in ACTA, which was actively supported by all EU national governments but overwhelmingly thrown out by MEPs. And MEPs consistently vote to have a single seat for the European Parliament, while in the Council France consistently blocks it.
    We have a message about the importance of MEPs in the EU lawmaking process, and of having Lib Dem MEPs in particular to ensure that the voice of liberalism gets heard. It’s just that we don’t ever talk about it.

  • Mick Taylor 15th Jan '14 - 8:47pm

    We have a long list of policies to reform the EU, which I do not propose to rehearse here. Interested parties can find all they need to know on

  • From the ALDE website, the section on ‘Growth & Jobs’ starts with the following two paragraphs.

    “Tackling the economic and financial crisis by a sustainable recovery

    The economic and financial crisis is not over yet. And when it is, it does not mean that recovery will automatically start. Important measures need to be taken. “

    Well, duh! ‘Important measures’ – I can hardly wait. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any better.

  • jedibeeftrix 16th Jan '14 - 9:15pm

    @ GF – “Moreover, one of the key issues in a multi-tier polity is who does what (e.g. in this instance between the nations and the EU) which, entirely uncoincidentally, happens to be one of the things that gets eurosceptics most hot and bothered (that olive oil again for instance”

    Yes and no.

    Who does what is the big question, but it is not defined by issues like olive oil.

    No, it is the big things like – what determination do we make on how much tax society should pay in the name of collective welfare, who decides what is lawful and constitutional, what tests must be met to justify to apply the use force.

    Those kinds of things.

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