Interview: Graham Watson, leader of group of Liberal Democrat MEPs

Graham Watson, the European liberal democrats leader, wants to set
up a new centrist pro-European political group to form a rival
power bloc to the European parliament’s two main groups, the
conservatives (EPP) and the socialists (PES).

Graham Watson was elected as leader of the Liberal Democrat
political group of the European Parliament in January 2002. He was
the first British Liberal Democrat to be elected to the European
Parliament in 1994. Read the

interview
news

Are you satisfied with the elections’
results? Did you expect more liberal MEPs to be
elected?

I am very pleased with the ELDR ‘s results. It
is clear that in the new Parliament, the liberal democrat group
will be at least as strong as it was in the last Parliament, and
probably a little stronger. We had a particularly good result in
Germany – where we elected 7 MEPs – and in the United Kingdom.

Will the liberal political group change
its composition and name?

There is a good opportunity for liberals to get
together with other forces in the Parliament and to create a new
group in the centre which would a be a pro-European group,
involving the liberals, the UDF of François Bayrou, Romano Prodi’s
troops in Italy and quite possibly others. This group would create
a dynamic of its own as a third pole between the socialists and the
right-wing.

Is it confirmed that French UDF and
Italian Magherita MEPs will join the liberals to form a new
group?

There is a good chance of creating a new group.
François Bayrou announced on French TV that he will definitely be
leaving the EPP.

Do you think the majority or coalition
will change in the new Parliament?

The experience we had in the last parliament of
a Centre-right arrangement, rather than a grand coalition between
the right and left was a good experience – one that I would be
prepared to repeat.

I certainly don’t exclude the possibility of a
centre-left arrangement or the possibility of the the Socialists
and Christian democrats doing something together and any new centre
grouping remaining in opposition.

What is important to me is to manage to build a
new centre grouping in the Parliament which would have the strength
to have two or three committee chairmanships, to secure a number of
interesting reports during the life of the European Parliament,
particularly because the anti-Europeans are increasingly strident
on the right-wing, not just in any new right-wing group, but
increasingly also in the EPP.

In your view, why is euroscepticism
gaining ground?

It is a reflection of the failure of our
national political elites to explain to people how the European
Union works and why it is important. It is also partly a reflection
of the failure of the European institutions to reform
themselves.

Part of the agenda of my group over the last two
Parliaments has been the reform of the European Parliament – not
yet achieved, perhaps we will this time. The failure of the reform
of the MEPs’ pay and expenses is evident for the voters.

How do you judge the fact that the
Commission and the Council signed an agreement with the United
States against the will of the Parliament?

It is disgraceful. I requested a special meeting
of the conference of the Presidents of the political groups on 16
June. It is likely that we will challenge the action of the
Commsision and the Council in the European Court of Justice. It
would need to be voted in plenary during the first meeting of the
Parliament on 20 July.

In your view, who is to become the
President of the Commsision and Parliament?

The heads of state and government will determine
the President of the Commission. We have strong candidates from the
liberal family, including Guy Verhofstadt and Pat Cox. Unlike
Pöttering [leader of the EPP-ED group], I think that the results of
the election in the Parliament will be more important in
determining the President of t he Parliament than the President of
the Commission. For the Commisson’s president, the heads of state
and government should choose the best person for the job,
irrespective of their party or political colour.

How do you react to the low turnout in
the new Member States?

I think it is very disappointing. It should lead
us to a period of reflection and debates about what we need to do
to bring Europe closer to the people. That is a debate which must
involve national politicians.

In some cases, people were simply tired of
voting. They were asked to vote last year in referenda on their
countries’ membership of the EU. They have been asked to vote in
local elections and in some cases, in national elections. The
public at a certain point just turns off. Let’s give it some
serious analysis and thought. But let’s not do something hasty. I
would not be in favour of making voting compulsory, like in
Australia or Belgium. I think that if people have the opportunity
to vote and they choose not to exercise it, it means that they are
not too discontented.