23 mei 2009

Interview with Annemie Neyts and Graham Watson (Vincent De Roeck)

In three weeks time, the next EU elections are set to take place. The final countdown has begun. Time for New Libertas editor Vincent De Roeck to sit down with ELDR chairwoman Annemie Neyts MEP and ALDE group leader Graham Watson MEP for a double interview in Brussels on the issues that really matter in this campaign. An impression.

Vincent De Roeck: ALDE launched his campaign in April. Is ALDE ready? What are the main campaign issues, and which special concerns are addressed in this year’s election platform? And what are the expectations of ALDE in this election?

Graham Watson: ELDR launched its election campaign in April. ALDE does not have a separate campaign.

Annemie Neyts: As you know, the ALDE Group consists of the ELDR Party, which brings together 75 MEPs from among its member parties, and the European Democratic Party with 25 MEPs.
As Graham stated, ELDR had a big campaign launch on April 15th, which was a huge success, and where we presented our common electoral programme, consisting of 15 bullet points built around 4 main themes: Civil Liberties; EU Single Market, Growth and Employment; Environment and Energy Policy; and Enlargement, Foreign, Security and Defence Policy.

Vincent: ALDE was the first European political group to announce its plan to conduct a pan-European campaign in 2009, but many national parties still seem to prefer a purely domestic campaign. What are your thoughts about this, and will this initial idea be upheld in the forthcoming campaign?

Graham: ALDE does not campaign as such but it is a shame that these elections, as always, will be characterised by 27 different national elections instead of a coherent pan-European campaign - despite Liberal parties sharing a common ELDR manifesto. Unfortunately EP elections are too often treated as a mid-term referendum on national government performance rather than a substantive national debate on EU cooperation across a range of policy issues from environment to human rights.

Annemie: It is a pity indeed that the traditional trend has not yet changed, and most parties from different groups within the European Parliament are still campaigning as if it were domestic elections. ELDR has always tried to break away from this trend.
ELDR currently consists of 58 member parties across Europe. The Liberal Democrats were the first to create a European political family in 1976 in view of the first European elections.
We not only have a common manifesto, which will be the guideline in all our member parties across Europe, also, a lot of us will be travelling across Europe, visiting our members and campaign together.

Vincent: After François Bayrou’s MODEM decided to leave the EDP and join the ELDR, many observers speculate that ALDE will disappear after the June elections and that the liberal democrats in the EU Parliament will readopt ELDR as the name of their grouping. Is this correct? And what are your feelings about this?

Graham: This is not true. It is too early to speculate on the future shape of the new Liberal & Democrat group in the Parliament but MODEM continue to do well in the polls in France, although they are positioning themselves more and more to the left of centre in an attempt to become the main opposition to Sarkozy.

Annemie: I don't think this is correct. The ELDR and EDP are two different parties, who work together very well within the ALDE Group. We are united in ALDE by a common vision, and I do not expect this to change.

Vincent: Tory big shot William Hague declared his formal intention to leave the EPP-ED grouping after the next elections and to establish a new centre-right parliamentary group. This new group is to be moderately Euro-sceptic, economically liberal, and socially conservative, with a strong reformist agenda. Will they achieve this regrouping, and what will be the consequences of this move for the political balance in general and the situation of ALDE in particular?

Graham: This had become an inevitability after David Cameron, Conservative party leader, pledged his commitment to leave the federalist Christian-democrat grouping of EPP. However it does isolate the Tories just as they appear to be readying themselves for power in the UK and will be our main line of attack in the forthcoming elections.
It is probable that they will manage to form a political group in the new Parliament with the requisite 25 MEPs from 7 Member States but they will be a fairly lone and sorry voice in the Chamber, shouting from the sidelines rather than influencing from the centre.
The EPP as a consequence will be weakened numerically (though still probably the largest group) and strengthened in internal coherence by losing the British and Czech sceptics. The balance of power in the Parliament will be more even which should play into the hands of a unified Liberal group holding the balance of power.

Vincent: ELDR has always been a strong supporter for the Lisbon Treaty, but after last year’s Irish referendum, the ratification process slowed down and is now stopped. The deathblow was given when the Czech government was forced to resign over this issue. What will happen with the Lisbon Treaty, and will this be a major issue in the campaign?

Graham: The Czech Senate has now ratified the Treaty, completing the parliamentary process in the Czech Republic, though President Klaus still has to sign and 17 ODS Senators have tabled an appeal to the Constitutional Court (again) to delay the process yet further. European partners are tiring of Czech procrastination which is damaging preparations for the Union to elect and nominate representatives to its institutions in the Autumn.
If the Irish say Yes in their second referendum in October, as currently expected, the pressure on Klaus and Kazynscki to sign will be huge. In the meantime, we should get on with our business as usual under the existing Treaty framework.

Annemie: ELDR has not built its campaign around the Lisbon issue, but obviously we call for its swift adoption and implementation.
I am convinced we need a stronger European Union in order to tackle the big issues we currently face. People across Europe understand this need, and politicians need to be responsible in this matter. After the Irish "YES" in October, the Czech Republic -or better, certain Czech politicians- will have to rethink their behaviour and allow for the European Union to adapt itself, so it can respond adequately to the needs of the people.

Vincent: The anti-Lisbon group Libertas transformed itself into a full-size pan-European party and wants to file candidates in every EU member state. They run on a platform of subsidiarity, transparency, accountability and democracy. Other new parties also emerged in recent months. What will be their impact on the outcome of the next EU elections, and will they threaten the current balance of power in Brussels?

Graham: It is by no means certain that Declan Ganley's Libertas will take off in the way he hopes. He has secured very little support in the countries he has visited and has resorted to bribing politicians from existing parties to join him. His chances of getting more than a handful of representatives are very slim. Many citizens, even in Ireland now, can see through the thin veneer of his populism and realise he is without substance. I do not expect Libertas to have any impact on the balance of power in Brussels.

Annemie: The emergence of new parties in itself is not a bad thing. It is the expression of our open democratic system, and it allows for the citizen to express certain feelings traditional parties sometimes need to be reminded of.
However, we have seen these kinds of populist parties surfacing from time to time, both in a national as in the European context. We have also seen them disappear relatively fast. I do not believe the case with Libertas will be much different. They are having a hard time already finding enough (credible) candidates, and will probably find it even more difficult to formulate coherent politics after the elections.
So, no, I do not believe Libertas will cause a shift of balance in Brussels.

Vincent: ALDE leader Graham Watson launched his campaign to become the next President of the European Parliament, rejecting the EPP-PES consensus to share that mandate for yet another term. The Greens and the Italians within the EPP are also considering to propose their own candidates for the Presidency. What will happen? Is there a way for Mr. Graham to succeed? And what will be the fall-out of this move for the institution as a whole?

Graham: I decided to run for President of Parliament on behalf of the Liberal Democrat group to highlight our deception at the secret deals which govern important decisions such as choosing the President of Europe's directly elected institution. There are many things that it needs to do to become a more vibrant and relevant forum for public debate and accountable decision-making. It may or may not come to pass, but the only election you have no chance of winning is the one you don't stand for.

Annemie: I am very happy to have a liberal candidate for the next President of the European Parliament. Of course, Graham has the fullest support from ELDR and myself. I believe that he is the ideal candidate to lead the parliament in working to revive the reform of Europe's institutions, provide a much needed stimulus to the economy and ensure Europe plays a leading role in addressing climate change and the EU's energy needs.
On top of that, the way he has openly presented himself as a candidate, is a very strong signal for more democracy, transparency and liberalism.

Vincent: The Barrosso Commission consisted out of Christian-democrats, socialists and liberals. Will this de facto ideological equilibrium be conserved after June? And is ALDE to propose its own candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission?

Annemie: We hope that the elections go well, and we are quite confident that our position in the Parliament will remain more or less the same. The ideological equilibrium will thus be conserved within the Parliament, so it would be highly doubtful that this would not be the case in the next Commission. We are surely all convinced that we need liberal voices within this body, so that is what we will most certainly strive for.

Vincent: The extremely low overall turnout in EU elections is a disgrace for the Union. Will this change in June? And what measures are taken by ALDE to increase the turnout?

Graham: The overall turn out at the 2004 European elections was 45%. This was disappointing as it repeated a declining trend since the first direct elections in 1979 but I would not yet describe it as a disgrace. Such a term may be used perhaps for Slovakia where the figure was only 17%.
However we do face a serious issue of declining interest, in contrast to the growing powers and importance of the European Parliament which suggests voters on the whole do not understand what the EU is doing and how it affects their lives. Much of this is the fault of poor and disingenuous media reporting but no politician can escape responsibility.

Annemie: I think there are two main reasons for this declining interest. First of all, I have recently developed a theory that if the media would spend as little time on football as they do on the European Union, nobody would care about, or even understand what the game is all about, except for the occasional scandal.
The media have a responsibility in this. They of course have the freedom to report on what and in what way they want, I would not be a liberal if I opposed this, but the European citizen also has a right to know what is going on.
Secondly, we need a more transparent Union, one that is closer to the people. This is indeed the main task of politicians, not only in times of elections, but all through their mandates.

Vincent: Many citizens suffer from the financial crisis. Christian-democrats blame ‘individualism’ and socialists blame ‘capitalism’ for this. How will ALDE - liberalism inherently implies both individualism and capitalism - cope with these vicious attacks? And will this affect the outcome of the elections?

Graham: The financial crisis will undoubtedly be the main concern of the electorate as we head into elections. They are right to be angry and expect answers from elected representatives. Liberals are neither individualists nor capitalists. We believe in community values, solidarity and fairness. There has been a serious failure of banking supervision that few spotted and even fewer acted upon in the good years of boom and growth.
But opinion polls show that governing parties across the continent are all being blamed for not taking action earlier - including socialist and christian democrats. The two main parties are so busy looking for someone to blame that they are failing to take coordinated action to find a solution.

Annemie: Liberals are not afraid to take up responsibility, and this we cannot do by hiding in a corner. The current crisis is not a liberal crisis. We have to be offensive, take the lead and make sure that the way out of the crisis will be a liberal one, one that will lead us to a more prosperous and greener future. Our electoral programme is very clear on this, so we must get our message across, so that the voters will give a positive response.

Vincent: NATO celebrates its 60th birthday this year, the Alliance has reached a consensus on Afghanistan, and with Barack Obama we have a less outspoken American exceptionalist in the White House. How will NATO evolve in the forthcoming years, and what will be the role of the EU? Did anti-Americanism disappear in Europe the day Obama got elected or not really? And how will this idea of a ‘multi-polar world’ look like?

Annemie: If Lisbon gets implemented, the EU will be able to present a much more coherent foreign policy, which will reinforce its role as a global player. This will of course also affect its position in NATO and its relation with the USA, which should become more balanced.
I believe President Obama will be open to this evolution, which of course does not mean that he will happily surrender US hegemony. However, as the multi-polar world is being born, both EU and USA will have to work steadily together to keep promoting the ideals of freedom, democracy and security throughout the world, or we risk being swept aside by other players.

Vincent: In the last few months, many media outlets talked about ‘enlargement fatigue’ in the EU-27. How will this affect the future of the enlargement process? Will Turkey be kept in the fridge, and what with Croatia? What about the Caucasus republics and the eastern part of the Balkans? And how will the Euro-Mediterranean Union present itself on the world stage?

Annemie: ELDR is in favour of further enlargement, and of enhanced cooperation with other areas.
Of course, and we have to keep repeating this, when it comes to enlargement, we will need the Lisbon Treaty to properly allow for this.
Projects such as the Euro-Mediterranean Union are a very good incentive to promote and spread the European values and principles outside our borders in a peaceful way, and we should continue to work on similar projects.

Vincent: In general, EU politics is dominated by relatively old politicians with a career background in national politics. ELDR always supported the participation of young people in politics. Which steps were taken to secure the electibility of young people in the forthcoming elections?

Annemie: It is always hard for young people to take the stage as they haven't had a lot of visibility yet.
However, when you take the lists from the ELDR parties, you will see that everywhere, a lot of young candidates have stood up and been given a chance to be elected. This is a good thing, definitely for Europe, as our youngsters have always been more Europe-oriented, so they are very much willing to promote the ideas of a stronger cooperation in a Europe without borders.

Vincent: And last but not least, what are your priorities for the next EU Commission and EU Parliament? And how will that effect the world?

Graham & Annemie: Addressing the economic and financial crisis.
Unless the current flu pandemic spreads fear and panic across the world, the economic recession and financial crisis is likely to remain top of the political agenda both at the forthcoming European elections and some time after. The EU (all Member States collectively and in a coordinated manner) needs to take immediate action to stimulate both economic growth and job creation.
Achieving an ambitious agreement at the environment conference in Copenhagen in December
Well before we were caught up in a financial crisis, we were all greatly concerned by a global warming that threatens our very existence. That threat has not gone away with recession, but simply receded as a political priority. The two issues are linked in so far as we now have an opportunity to invest in a greener economy that uses less energy that promotes renewable energy sources and cleaner industrial practices. The EU has take, the lead in December 2008 with its 20-20-20 targets for reducing carbon emissions. We need to stick by these and convince the rest of the world that, despite a global economic downturn, it is possible to meet these targets.
Reversing growing scepticism about the European Union.
These European elections will see the greatest number of eurosceptic parties competing for election to the European Parliament. They are all variations on a theme that seeks to blame the European Union for all the ills of the world, when in fact it is providing many of the solutions. Many of Europe's citizens remain unconvinced or uninformed about how collective action at European level can enhance rather than inhibit national sovereignty.

Vincent: Thanks for your time and good luck with the campaign.

Interview for the LYMEC quarterly “New Libertas”
Vincent De Roeck, Brussels, Wednesday May 13th, 2009

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