Leader article: United in Europe

Across Europe we have entered the age of drawbridge politics. What do I mean by this? That the dividing line between left and right, which for years divided those favouring a free market economy (generally on the right) from those favouring a planned or social market economy (generally on the left) – and which estranged economic liberals from social liberals though they belong together – is disappearing fast.

Most of the left has now recognised the need for a globally competitive economy and a less costly welfare state, as evidenced in the manifesto of the Party of European Socialists adopted in Oporto in Dec 2006 (though a few have joined the ‘stop the world I wanna get off’ camp). In an almost conciliatory gesture, many on the right now discuss the impact of massive shifts in investment and jobs on desirable and necessary levels of social cohesion. If we are sacrificing some social cohesion for economic dynamism, what happens to what we used to call ‘the common good’? A new social contract, capable of reconciling the competing demands of flexibility and fairness in te post-industrial age, is actively sought.

Their is a new dividing line in politics, however, no less clear than the old left-right division over the management of the economy. It reflects our response to the challenges of globalisation.

Faced with rapid world population growth and migratory pressures; with the challenges of climate change and security of energy supply, or of internationally organised crime linked to terrorism, some respond by pulling up the drawbridge to create fortress Europe or even fortress nation state. If Conservatives, they retreat into nationalism, seeking trade barriers and pleading cultural superiority; if Christian Democrats, into a religious orthodoxy that we might baptise christian autocracy. This is the case for many right-wing parties and for the anti-globalisation left.

Others take the view that it is precisely these challenges – supranational challenges requiring supranational responses – which demand an open society “drawbridge down” response, seeking more equitable trading relationships, promotion of democratic European values through soft power instruments and active dialogue with people from other cultures.

The advantage for Liberal Democrats in this new situation is that we are united, social liberal and economic liberal alike, and we find ourselves at the centre of this new consensus stretching from centre-right to quite far left. That is why we now have five Liberal-led and many Liberal influenced governments across the EU, ten of 27 EU Commissioners from the Liberal family and over 100 MEPs, our largest representation ever, in the European Parliament.

Can we expect a realignment of political forces to reflect this change? Not easily. Party politics has a tendency to become tribal as much as ideogical. Politicial labels these days are a less trustworthy guide to content. But increasingly we will find right and left divided among themselves while Liberal Democrat positions win the day. This has been the experience of the Group I lead in the European Parliament, which holds the balance of power and finds itself increasingly the pivot of consensus building on any major issue.

* Graham Watson is Liberal Democrat MEP for SW England and Gibraltar and Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • But also with EPP and the socialists unravelling comes the outer edges of those groups coalescing around the existing lunatic fringe in the EP.

    The right wingers of The Independence, Tradition and Sovereignity group (T.I.T.S.) may have finally realised that grouping with other foreign nationalists was always a recipe for disaster, but presumably this is a temporary setback for the voices of unreason.

    And all the while, MEPs struggle to bring the media attention to the centre and away from the Kilroy-Silks of this world.

    Liberals leading a consensus in a long drawn out political process for the sake of “world population growth and migratory pressures; the challenges of climate change and security of energy supply, or of internationally organised crime linked to terrorism” will unfortunately come second in the headlines to TITS like Kilroy.

  • Andrew Duffield 19th Dec '07 - 4:52pm

    The difficulty we face is that the impending world recession, like all major economic downturns, will tend to herald a surge in nationalistic propaganda and sentiment. This will inevitably manifest itself in further protectionist and racist language from politicians of ‘left’ and ‘right’, and no doubt strike a populist, if completely misguided, chord. (“British jobs for British workers” etc).

    We need to develop an even more robust and potentially populist line to counter such hyperbole. We could start by campaigning for a relaxation in VAT rules (“Relax the Tax”?!), so that member states would be free to vary this highly regressive impost, ideally as part of individual member states’ tax switching efforts to combat climate change.

    “Unfair tax competition” is, and always will be, absolute nonsense. We need to free up the fiscal rules and let loose best practice. It would be worth giving up the British EU rebate for that prize!

  • As Graham Watson implies, Left-to-right is increasingly a tribal division today; in all Europe. It now has very, very little to do with policy. In the EU even more than in Britain the idea of a political spectrum from drawbridge down to drawbridge up gives a much better sense of the policy, attitude and emotional divides. But Graham needs to find different words. Being labelled the “downers” when our opponents could call themselves the “uppers” would not be good politics.

  • Mike Falchikov 21st Dec '07 - 5:37pm

    The newly extended Schengen zone comes into force today. Are Lib Dems in favour of this – surely we should be? What are our MEPs saying about it and what are the implications for Schengen and our new “tough” immigration policy? We need
    clarification on this issue.

    Mike Falchikov

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