‘I have a vision’, says liberal EU election nominee Olli Rehn

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EXCLUSIVE / The EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, will compete with Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the liberal political group in the European Parliament, in what is expected to be a close race to head the campaign for the European Commission presidency next year. Rehn spoke to EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

On the margins of a summit of EU leaders yesterday (19 December) liberal party leaders from across Europe discussed the nomination process for their common candidate for the Commission presidency at the May 2014 European elections.

If no other candidates throw their hats into the ring, the liberals will have two nominees: Rehn and the president of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt.

The preferred candidate will be decided at an electoral congress in Brussels, on 1 February.

While Verhofstadt spoke earlier of his ambitions to become José Manuel Barroso’s successor at the European Commission, Olli Rehn filed his application letter only this week, surprising friends and foes with 14 endorsements of liberal parties from across EU member states.

“I think it is fair to say that we both have a substantial support within the ALDE family,” said Rehn, anticipating a close race. “I am good friends with Guy and I respect him. He has plenty of political energy and experience.”

>>Read: Rehn in pole position to lead EU liberals in 2014 election campaign

But while many – including fellow liberals – have criticised Verhofstadt’s avid euro-federalism, Rehn has a more moderate view on Europe’s short-term future, based on careful consensus-building with other political parties.

“I have a vision, namely that we now have to focus on economic recovery and on job creation. That starts with a European Union that’s big on big things and small on small things,” he said.

"We can’t solve the EU’s problems by some kind of central planning," Rehn went on in an apparent rebuff of Verhoftadt's federalist views. "We need to have stronger governance within the EU [member states] as well."

>>Read the full interview with Olli Rehn: There needs to be a post-election coalition

Foreseeing a tough battle between the two, the ALDE leaders appointed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German liberal Christian Lindner as ‘mediators’ between Rehn and Verhofstadt, Belgian daily De Standaard reported on Thursday.

Rutte and Lindner would be in charge of avoiding a dirty political fight, and possibly even reach a consensus on a single candidate to endorse without going through a potentially damaging vote on 1 February.

Broad coalition after elections

European parties are in the process of nominating their common candidates, who will serve as potential successors to the current Commission president, José Manuel Barroso. But even though some of the parties already have frontrunners for their pan-European campaigns, there is no guarantee that EU heads of state and government will accept the winning candidate as the new president of the EU executive.

At the last EU summit, in October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted her objections to the parties’ electoral push, saying “there is no automatic link" between a party’s electoral victory and the designation of a new Commission president.

Olli Rehn is confident the plan will work, however: “There might be no automatic link, but there is certainly a strong connection,” he said. “Europe is fundamentally a democracy and this is the way to take new steps towards a more democratic Europe.”

The commissioner hopes a broad coalition will come out of next EU elections, hinting at a possible collaboration between the socialists, liberals and greens after the elections: “In my view, there needs to be a post-election coalition between three to four political families. That would deliver sufficient stability in policy making in the coming five years.”

“Because we cannot afford to have too much institutional wrangling – we must focus on providing solutions for the European citizens,” he added.

The big unknown in the upcoming EU elections campaign is how much the eurosceptics will dominate the debate in various member states. A pan-European alliance between the Dutch populist Geert Wilders and the leader of the extreme-right French Front national (FN) party, Marine Le Pen, has led analysts and commentators to predict that the next European Parliament will be highly eurosceptic.

But, Rehn reacted to such alarmist calls, “I am not in politics because of fear, but because of hope. And now it is essential that European political families – and our own liberals and democrats – provide a vision for Europe.”

The next European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014. It will be the eighth European Parliament contest since the first direct elections in 1979.

The Lisbon Treaty says that the European Parliament shall elect the Commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.

Populist right-wing parties will form a coalition towards the EU elections and have raised the stakes of the election campaigns for mainstream parties. In the coming months, mainstream parties will clarify the common programmes or ‘manifestos’, on which to base their common campaign and for national parties to use in national campaigns.

>> Read more on the EU elections in our LinksDossier.

  • 19-20 Dec. 2013: Liberal leaders discuss their common candidate for Commission Presidency at a pre-summit meeting in Brussels
  • 20 Dec. 2013: Nominations formally close
  • 1 Febr. 2014: ALDE's electoral congress to elect its common candidate, in Brussels
  • 22-25 May 2014: European Parliament elections in all 28 member states

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

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