Wednesday 5 February 2014

Liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt and the “Federalist Cause”

Guy Verhofstadt, who has led the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament for the last few years, will be the Liberals’ candidate forthe Commission Presidency in the May elections. He has fended off Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs for the candidacy. It was unlikely that Rehn would have much appeal across Europe – he is the face of Eurozone austerity in the bailed-out countries and would represent a very fiscally hawkish face for the liberals – but he had a lot of support among the ALDE member-parties. The two will run together on a the same “ticket”, with Rehn proposed for another “senior post”. Perhaps the thinking is that if Verhofstadt doesn’t get the Presidency, he might stay as leader of the parliamentary group…?

Verhofstadt is probably a better bet than Rehn in that he’s a former Prime Minister (or Belgium) and has experience in both the European Parliament and in the European Council. He failed in his last attempt to become Commission President when Barroso first got the job in 2004… and I can’t see him having much hope this time around. Though some in his party have noted that he’s more centrist (and therefore more likely to be able to deal with either a right- or left- leaning Parliament), the liberals are probably going to have a very tough election. Two of the biggest liberal contingents – the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the FDP in Germany – are battered, with the FDP thrown out of the Bundestag last year and the Lib Dems predicted to come 4th in the UK in the May poll.

Verhofstadt is an interesting choice given his very outspoken federalism. Having written a federalist book – The United States of Europe – and given tub-thumping federalist speeches in the European Parliament, I’ve come to think of him as the federalist Farage. He has tried to set out his vision of federalism as more democratic:

However, I can’t see a more nuanced version reaching people. And, as I said at the start of the last Parliament, a focus on federalism and pro-Europeanism is not the way to go. Federalism is a concept for organising things rather than a proper ideology that sets out values and priorities. Really, competing ideas for the Eurozone, economic growth, the CAP, etc., need to be put to people and then the decision is make on how much to do at the European level, and how to do it.

The Liberals, and Verhofstadt, will need to come out with credible policies to make their brand more bankable. It strikes me that civil liberties and data protection could be a good issue for them if they tap into it – certainly it would chime with a lot more people than vague sermons on “federalism”.

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