ALDE chief: European Parliament needs ‘ideological coalition’

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An “ideological coalition”, holding a majority in the European Parliament, should be formed after the EU elections in June 2009 to push forward a substantial package on the economy, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) leader Graham Watson told EURACTIV in an interview.

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. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

How important is the election of Barack Obama as US President? 

I think that the hopes of the world are resting upon Mr. Obama’s shoulders. It is certainly true that the European Union expects a very substantial change on America’s approach to world governance with Barack Obama. Everything that I have seen of him suggests that he is a man of new ideas, of considerable capability, but whether we are fair to him in expecting a major change of policy from the most powerful nation on Earth, I think that some of us may be disappointed if we expect everything to change overnight. 

What do you think of the initiative of European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering to invite him to speak to the European Parliament? 

I think to take the initiative very early to invite the next American president to address the European Parliament is a good one and I hope that just as Ronald Reagan has paid a first visit to Europe to Brussels, I hope that the next American president will do the same. 

But first, there will be a G20 summit in Washington, on 15 November. Barack Obama will not be present. Maybe his economic team will be there. And on 7 November the European Union is meeting for a mandate for the G20 meeting. What are you expectations from those events? 

I hope that we can develop together with the Americans a consensus on how we go about regulation of the financial services industry. Currently, our approaches are very, very different. Now maybe, we will not develop a consensus on the mechanisms to be used, but if at least we can develop a consensus on the policies to be employed, then we will be some way forward and that is the most that we can hope for. 

As for the length of time that it takes to get Obama in place, America is almost as bad as Europe. It normally takes us from July or August until November to get an administration in place and it is taking America one month less. 

The Czech Presidency will soon be in office. Do you think this offers an additional chance to have a Transatlantic dossier as strong as ever? 

I think whichever presidency were taking office in Europe on the 1st January would have a very keen interest in representing the interest of the member states in establishing early and good relations with the states of America. The fact that we have in the Czech presidency a government that is perhaps viewed more favourably by the current American administration than some other European governments, can only be helpful to that process. 

Do you think that Eastern Europe will lose its privileged partner status with the United States? 

I think the approach of Central and Eastern countries to the USA will be one which will influence the EU’s approach in general. And I think that the influence that it has will generally be for the good. After all, these are countries who saw America during the years of communism as a bulwark for freedom in a way in which the rest of Europe was not so much perceived. So I think that there is a role for a reassessment of transatlantic relations, which should come in any case with any new administration where the balance of prejudice is perhaps not so prone to the mild anti-Americanism of my generation in Western Europe. 

There have been many EU summits lately. Is there a risk of inflation of summit decision-making? 

I do not think that summits are the best place to discuss in a general framework, relations with other governments. What I think summits are well suited to is taking specific policy decisions or policy orientations on foreign governments to reflect current concerns. For example, I think that the October summit was right to put into the conclusions the consensus of our approach towards the stability of the Southern Caucuses vis-à-vis Russia. I think what we need to expect of this summit [on 7 November] is an approach which recognizes we need to make progress on certain policies which will be useful in our cooperation with America and other countries in stabilizing the world economy, such as for example, the development of a European financial services authority, such as a recognition of the limits of economic governance in the member states. I think if we concentrate on the matter in hand, then our relations with the Americans will in any case become closer and I think they need to become closer because however much many of us in Europe may be skeptical of American foreign policy in many areas of the world, we nevertheless need to recognize that there is far more in common between the European Union and the United States of America than that which divides us. 

Could there be a European stimulus package agreed at the summit for the economy or do you think that is unlikely? 

It is quite likely that we will agree to put together a number of measures in nay case we have sought can call it an economic stimulus package. For example, investment in research and development, innovation and industry, for example, investment in more sustainable ways of generating power. All of these things will be brought together in a wonderful way that governments have and put forward as part of a beautiful, complete picture even if in reality, there are parts of different pictures that have been brought in to the frame because they are necessary moves forward. 

Would that mean bending the European Commission’s competition policy? 

I think that the Commission is very worried and rightly worried and it is a worry that I and my colleagues in the group share, that competition policy might be bent as a result of the policies that the governments will now pursue. And it is the job of the Commission and the job of those of us in Parliament, who believe that one of the Commission’s main achievements has been the development of an active and tough competition policy, to make sure that what is done in response to the crisis does not undermine the integrity of that policy. 

The EU took the lead in Georgia. The United States were absent. Then, the EU took the lead on the financial crisis of reforming the world economic system, which has in fact an American label, the Bretton Woods system. Is this good news in sight of the European elections, does it inspire for positive messages to the Europeans? 

I think it is the most important thing we can do to convince our citizens that Europe works. Much of the last five years has been for our citizens a picture of Europe not working, whether it was France or the Netherlands rejecting the constitutional treaty or Ireland or some other countries failing to ratify the successor Lisbon treaty. The picture to our citizens has been one of politicians and national leaders wobbling over issues that are often remote from the citizens and difficult to understand. If our citizens can see that it was the European Union that kept tanks out of Tbilisi, that it was the European Union that kept the banks in business, that it is the European Union that is capable of agreeing the necessary legislation to tackle climate change. Then I think that they are more likely to be prepared (a) to vote for the treaty changes that Europe’s leaders seek but (b) more to feel a part of and a stakeholder in a democratic process of the building of the European Union. 

In your campaign, how are you going to raise the issue of the Lisbon Treaty for example? 

My campaign is in the member state which has the least knowledge and understanding of the European Union, and the one thing that I will attempt to avoid mentioning at all is the Lisbon Treaty, because what I want to point out to people is how action at European level is making us more able to bring criminals to justice, is making us more able to provide the economic growth that is making our citizens better off, how it is allowed us to overcome some of the difficulties citizens find when they go to travel or to marry or to buy property abroad. In other words, the individual actions at European level that have made the citizens better off. 

I do not think that the citizens care very much about how government policy is delivered or how services are delivered to them because they are concerned about the quality of those services and of those policies and that is what I shall think about. 

At a wider European level and within the Brussels beltway, I suppose it is possible that we might discuss the Lisbon treaty. 

What about your views concerning the possible turnout for the 2009 election? It has been declining consistently since the first European elections. Do you expect the trend to continue? 

I am not convinced that we will see further decline in voter participation and would be very disappointed if we did, but I think much will depend on events in the next few months. And I say that because what I think is driving public appreciation of European cooperation and European solidarity is the increasing recognition that many of the major challenges we face as society are supranational in their nature and require a supranational response, and although the European Union may not be the universal answer to meeting supranational challenges, it is certainly a very important factor in dealing with them successfully. 

Do you expect the Czech presidency to be a good messenger in conveying that message? Would it be very much in the spotlight like the French are now? 

I expect the Czech presidency to be no better or worse than the average for presidencies of the European Union. I am sure that the Czech Republic is capable of delivering a good presidency and I will be prepared to put a lot of effort into working with them to ensure that they enjoy a success. 

At the ELDR annual congress held recently in Stockholm, various members mentioned the potential for the cooperation of the EPP-ED and the Liberals, some described it as the natural cooperation of the European parliament. How would you assess that? 

If you look at the way we vote on different issues, I would say that we vote with the left as much as we vote with the right, though of course the issues differ. We tend to vote with the left when it comes to environmental issues, issues of foreign policy and so on. We tend to vote on the right when it comes down to management of the economy or the constitutional development of the European Union. 

What I do hope is that the next European Parliament will see an ideological coalition informed rather than a technical agreement on the sharing out of jobs because it seems to me that if Europe’s citizens vote for a parliament that has a centre-right majority, then they should have the certainty of knowing that their votes have been respected in the majority that is formed to manage parliament and similarly, should they vote for a parliament with a centre-left majority, the same applies. 

An ideological coalition of over 50 % in the European Parliament can push though a lot of legislation in a very short time and this means for example the Lisbon strategy can sort of receive an impetus from such a situation where it will easy to pass legislation. Is this what is envisaged? 

I believe we could drive Europe forward much more effectively and much more efficiently if we had an ideological majority parliament that reflected the ideological majority in the Council of Ministers where the Socialists currently have fewer governments than the Liberals. 

Does this mean that the Liberals would be prepared to join this ideological coalition? 

We are, as liberals, as open to the ideas of others and open to conversation and we will be very happy to talk to any other political group about cooperation on issues where we agree or can find consensus between us. 

I did not double the size of my group in the European parliament in order to see it remain a fringe grouping on the outside. I believe that my group will continue to grow and will continue to have an influence on the policy development of the European Union and that means that we are actively seeking cooperation with others to advance our agenda. 

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