Europe’s liberals prepare for overthrow of Grand Coalition

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Guy Verhofstadt (L), leader of the ALDE Liberal group at the European Parliament speaks with Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament Manfred Weber (R) before the speeches at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

Liberals in Europe want to overthrow the European cartel of power held by conservative and social democrats and are targeting victory in the upcoming European elections in 2019. Can their offensive possibly succeed? Wolf Achim Wiegand looks at their chances.

Wolf Achim Wiegand is a journalist from Hamburg. He is active in the FDP party and is an elected country coordinator for the German individual members of the ALDE Group. This opinion-piece reflects the views of the author only.

When the European Liberals gather for their convention during the first weekend of December in Amsterdam, one of the nearly 60 member parties will get special attention: the German FDP.

This is because the members of umbrella organisation ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) hoped for an increase in influence with the return to parliament of the German sister party in the biggest EU member state.

In addition, a Free Democrat as German foreign minister would have, many hoped, brought greater impetus to a liberal re-start of the European project.

But after the collapse of coalition talks, the situation suddenly looks very different and the FDP is close to being considered the ‘problem child’ of ALDE.

The image problem already started during the glossy election campaign, when German FDP politicians released diffuse statements on the continuation of EU sanctions against Russia.

Allegations that the FDP is turning into a national liberal party emerged when the landmark speech by the French bearer of hope, Emmanuel Macron, was met with little empathy by German liberals.

A completely different reaction towards Macron came from the leader of the ALDE Group, Guy Verhofstadt, who said: “That’s how it should be! Let’s move Europe forward!”

Liberals shimmer in many colours

Hans van Baalen is the man who has to herd the bunch of colourful liberal cats. The 57-year-old president of the ALDE Party is a fan of the Free Democrats. When they pulled out of the coalition talks, the Dutchman tweeted: “Courageous decision by Christian Lindner!”

But the FDP is just one of the liberal parties organised under the ALDE umbrella, with members hailing from Georgia to the UK, and from Sicily to Stockholm. Among them there are many different, sometimes even diverging, forces.

Even direct political contenders are there, like the Spanish party Ciudadanos, faithful to the Spanish central state, with its alert young politician Albert Rivera (39), and the Partido Demócrata Europeo Catalán (PDeCAT), which demands Catalan independence.

And beside the young Polish party Nowoczesna (Modern), whose 48-year-old new leader Katarzyna Lubnauer, an university teacher with PhD in mathematics, is squaring up in Warsaw to the ultra-conservative government party PiS (Law and Justice) of Jarosław Kaczyński (68), there is also the populist ANO 2011 (based on the former movement Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) from the Czech Republic.

Its powerful chairman Andrej Babiš (63) acts like a populist and partly Eurosceptic – he is the “Donald Trump” of Eastern Europe.

Fresh blood through new parties and members

Despite or maybe even because of this colourful variety, van Baalen wants to make ALDE a fresh force at the forefront of a re-start in Europe.

“We can become the strongest European party,” van Baalen already said a year ago. The departing point for the breakthrough is meant to be in Amsterdam. At the congress, the reserve officer wants to sound the attack against the “eternal grand coalition” setting the tone in Europe. Their pass-the-ball game in the European Parliament annoys the Liberals.

New parties such as Ciudadanos or Nowoczesna, both founded in 2015, provide fresh blood for the ALDE Group. The so-called ‘Individual Members’ do the same.

This structure of individual members is an ALDE exception: every EU citizen can join them, and thus the ALDE party, without having to be a member of a national association. There are already several thousand individual members.

They no longer operate within national borders but are pan-European. One of their main demands: transnational lists for the upcoming European elections.

The upcoming European Congress of ALDE will show how far the Liberals can spread to become a broad reform movement against dull nationalist populism.

The biggest coup for van Baalen would be if he could announce the accession of Macron’s “La République en Marche!” to the ALDE Group. This, it seems, has not been ruled out completely. Ties between the Elysee Palace in Paris and ALDE headquarters in Brussels are said to be warming up. We will see.