MEP: Eurosceptics will not gain ground in EU elections

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One of the youngest MEPs in the European Parliament, German liberal Alexander Alvaro, told EURACTIV in an interview that Eurosceptics will try to gain ground at the European elections next June, but will not succeed “because in times of crisis, voters do not want to try new experiments”. 

Alexander Alvaro is a German Liberal MEP.

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

You gathered a million signatures for the ‘One Seat’ campaign to end the European Parliament’s monthly Strasbourg session in what was ultimately a successful initiative. Yet internally, you faced great opposition and did not manage to raise enough support to end the Strasbourg ‘travelling circus’. What happened?

In the end, we got 286 signatures. That is 100 short of what we actually need. It is a bit disappointing. But it also shows that we have been successful [with the second initiative] as we received 100 signatures more than we did the previous time [a petition was lodged in 2006 by a group of MEPs]. So, our campaign is gaining in popularity, but it could have been better, that is true. 

It is quite difficult to say what the results are. Obviously, we could count on French signatures, that was quite clear. A lot of German conservatives are also in favour of the way it is right now. The whole Spanish delegation, whatever party, decided not to sign because they said that it was up to the Council of Ministers, or even to the member states, not up to us. However, we had a clear signal from the Council of Ministers that if we take a decision, they would follow or that they would try to discuss it, but at least nobody would try to block something that Parliament wants. 

Unfortunately, not all the members who believed in the issue signed. Of course, it is disappointing, but at least we are gaining. We see it as one more step forward. 

But isn’t this a slap in the face for European citizens who signed the petition? Isn’t it also a blow for the Lisbon Treaty, under which citizens can gather a million signatures and influence policies with the so-called citizens’ initiative?

Well, for the online petition and the signatures we gathered there, it is disappointing for the citizens. We received loads of emails asking questions about what is going to happen. The petitions committee took the decision to have a plenary debate. But a plenary debate has to be approved by the Conference of Presidents. President Pöttering believes that this issue is shaking the fundamental principles of the European Union. It shows remarkably how much influence he attests to us for raising the issue. 

Mr. Daul, obviously, as a Frenchman from Alsace, does not want it. Martin Schulz, generally does not want it. Mr. Cohn-Bendit, as far as I remember, spoke in favour. In general, the Conference of Presidents was opposed to letting us have a debate on the issue. The Parliament’s administration and the Cabinet of the President are also trying to keep this issue at bay. 

Even the big poster advertisement for the signatures was taken down overnight on the order of the Secretary General of the Parliament, without informing us. 

Right now, we are fighting more against the administration and the President in this House than we can concentrate on gathering the people who are interested. 

So, politics as usual. Is that it? 

Even worse, maybe. 

But is it a blow for the Lisbon Treaty?

I do not think so. Let us get to the elections. 

You are German. For Germany, 2009 will be a key electoral year. A number of regional polls are expected to set the tone for the European elections in June and the general elections in September. Last week, the first vote in the federal state of Hesse saw a decisive advance of the liberal FDP, your party. Is that any indication for future elections? 

Well, it is always difficult to predict what will happen because voters change, political situations change. But the signal that is being given, I believe, gives us confidence in the work done so far. 

Hesse is certainly an exceptional situation in terms of the gains and the result. We do know that we are performing better and that the citizens perceive us favourably. They also trust the fact we have competences in economics and educational fields, where we can actually influence policymaking and make changes for the good. 

We see it also in the opinion polls: we are continuously going up, but again a jump like the one in Hesse was exceptional. It was due to the situation in that state and it is probably not repeatable, or it is definitely not something that we can rely on for the rest of the elections. 

It is definitely a good start for us. It gives an indication of where we are going and I hope that the following elections will have similar results. If we prove that we are able and capable of delivering what we promise, I am sure we will achieve better results also for the other elections. There are reasons for us to hope. 

Will these elections have an impact on the European elections? 

It is difficult to say because we have a couple of local elections on the same day as the European elections. That will probably increase turnout at the European elections. In terms of influence and parties, I am sure that if we prove to do what we said we were going to do, then of course, it gives us an asset for the European elections. It was a tremendous start and I hope that it will influence the European elections. 

But usually, if more people go to vote, then… 

It is difficult for smaller parties. That is one point. 

How are you preparing the EU elections? What topics you are going to campaign on?

When it comes to the elections, of course, you need to know as a candidate, and as a Parliament member, what is going on. But I will not try to position myself as somebody who is on top of every issue. I have also worked extensively in the field of civil liberties, justice and home affairs and I have gained expertise in everything that is related to data protection and the fight against crime and terrorism. Moreover, I am working on high-technology issues, such as biometrics. 

So I will mainly try to focus on my issues. But in general, I think the message that we will have to deliver, and it is probably different from campaign to campaign, from country to country, it is to that we see ourselves as representatives of Germany within the European Union, meaning that we will have to try to find a way for the interests of our country and our citizens to be mirrored within the European Union, where we have 26 partners. 

It is still quite difficult to explain Europe. We will have to deliver a perspective – what do we expect from Europe – either in terms of how we behave in a global context, as for example in the Middle East conflict. Do we see ourselves as a diplomat or as a mediator in the world? Or will we engage much more in peace-keeping missions? How do we achieve a sustainable economy? There will be a lot of issues to debate. Right now, I am keeping my eyes open. 

The preparations presently underway are more of a structural nature. For instance, building a website that fulfils the needs that I foresee as a candidate. We are beginning with this structural preparation, the tough campaigning will start in May. 

With regard to websites, blogging and social networking, you started a group ‘For Alvaro’ on Facebook. Do you think the Internet can be a tool for gaining voter support, like Barack Obama did in the US? How are you going to use the Internet and do you think that social media can help reach out to citizens? 

It is certainly one of the most important tools we have to communicate our views and campaigns to the people, even though President Obama’s website and his popularity were complemented by national media: TV, newspapers and magazines. 

You need all mediums to work and to be able to communicate. The Internet and all these social platforms have the advantage that you can quickly deliver the latest information updates. It is not difficult if you have a campaign event somewhere, to post the photos taken and within a few minutes, the information is on the Internet and people who are interested can follow what you say or do. So, in terms of exchange with citizens, it is a must. 

Ideally, you should be able to deliver you own sort of news channel, keeping people updated on what is going on but also having two-way communication. 

Citizens who are interested in what you do can write and tell you what they like and what they do not like, make recommendations. So it is also an opportunity to learn and to make progress. Nevertheless, I would still say [the Internet] it is one of the most important communication tools right now. 

But it also depends on how many people in Europe really start to use this medium in political campaigning, not from the side of the politician but from the citizens’ side. Will they accept that medium as a central part of the campaign? 

Everybody will probably try to apply some Web 2.0 applications and these European elections will be the first ones where we will see that happening intensively. We will see if it works. I think it is impossible to predict. After all, Europeans are different from Americans. Europeans, I would say, without diminishing the interests of American society in politics, are still more interested in picking up a newspaper. I also think that they are more involved in what is going on around them. So we are going to give it a try. But it will surely have a different impact than the one we saw in the US elections. We just have different cultural ways of doing political campaigning. 

Do you think it will at least have an impact on bringing more young people into politics? Do you think that voter turnout will increase among young people? 

Again, it is very difficult to predict, but I do think that the turnout of the European elections will be higher among people between 18 and 35 than it has ever been before. Not because of new social media or the Internet, but more due to the fact that public awareness about Europe has risen tremendously since the enlargement of the European Union – not least through negative effects, such as the referenda we have lost. 

People are more aware that the Union exists. I believe that young people have become much more aware that Europe is their future and they are more interested on the issues discussed at intergovernmental and international level than before. 

They see that only if we are united, we can fight climate change, we can work on the energy crisis, on the financial crisis, that we can be of substantial help in Gaza and so I think that they have seen that the European Union is their political future and they want to become involved. 

Despite what everybody is saying regarding European youth being not so interested in politics, I believe and I hope they are for their own personal reasons. For instance, a lot of them enroll in exchange programmes with ERASMUS, they do internships in different countries, and generally, they travel much, much more. They are generally very much aware of Europe and not just of their member state. You rightly said that the negative responses to referenda have given more visibility to the EU. 

Do you think that the Eurosceptics are going to play a big role in this campaign? 

I think they will try. On the right-wing side, you will find nationalistic views of the sort ‘my country first’ and doubting that Europe can tackle problems. The left wing side will also try to use the financial crisis to say that the whole model that Europe has built, doesn’t work – so go and vote for us. 

On both sides and extremes, left and right will try to gain and win. They might try to use the crisis or the Lisbon Treaty. The left might say that Europe should be part of a peace-keeping mission. The right will say that Europe is trying to destroy our national identity. But I do not believe that they will gain from this tactic, just because in times of crisis, people do not want to try new experiments. We have experienced that people try to rely on what they have and what they know. The elections in Hesse has also shown that Eurosceptics do not gain. The extreme left, I think, gained only 0.2%. 

In the Parliament, you are the ALDE coordinator for the civil liberties committee. A recent Eurobarometer poll shows that 72% of Europeans believe the EU can be useful in combating organised crime and terrorism. The Commission is expected to present its proposals for the Stockholm programme, as a follow up to the Tampere process, next May. What do you think should be at the centre of the Stockholm programme? What have you learnt so far and what do you think has to change? 

This change is not the kind of thing that you can write into a treaty or an agreement, it is more about changing the state of mind. I think that we should make the effort to take the legislation that we have already passed on fighting terrorism or organised crime to evaluate if it has fulfilled the purpose and if it is still worth keeping it. 

We have to be able to find something that we can call a “real-impact” assessment before legislation. For example, one could try to assess each decision within a triangle of security, freedom and mobility to ensure that the fundamental freedoms are respected. 

What we have seen in the civil liberties and home affairs committees, especially in the last couple of years, is that a lot of measures have been put in place to possibly help the so-called fight against terrorism, but these have significantly limited fundamental freedoms. Worst, people are not much aware that this is happening. 

We have restrictions and limitations on the freedom of speech, on the freedom of movement, or the right to privacy. From 2001 until 2007, we have been acting quite hysterically when it came to the legislation combating terrorism. From 2007 and 2008 onwards, it was the overall view in the LIBE committee that before we put any new legislation in place, we should have to evaluate what we have, then think about whether we should change it or not. And if this spirit is in the Stockholm declaration, I would already be happy. 

I must also say that certain problems have not been touched so far, for example elements of cyber crime and biohazards. These need to be addressed. Also, there is the question of whether we will have a real European immigration policy, but there, I think that we should not jump too rapidly. We are slowly trying to get member states used to the fact that we are moving together with the Blue Card. 

Another thing that I think we should do much, much more is to work in an interdisciplinary fashion. We are so much focused on our small world [as parliamentarians]: the civil liberties with the civil liberties parliamentarians, the same happens within the economics and the environmental committees. Everybody is in his/her own nutshell. 

I would like to see meetings of home affairs MEPs with development MEPs to discuss how we can improve the situation in the countries where we see that people are fleeing or are trying to gain asylum. Obviously, the situations in their home country must be so terrible that they do not want to stay there anymore. So the question is how can two different political branches like home affairs and development work together to ensure the best policymaking outcome. I would like a more interdisciplinary approach, I must admit. 

The problem is that we are no longer sector-specific anymore. A lot of different policy areas are linked. So I think that rather than have 100 experts on home affairs, we should have 20 experts from different policy areas discussing from their point of view and their expertise how to address the problem. A little more intellectual creativity in politics would be nice. 

Do you think national parliamentarians could also be implicated in the discussions? And how? 

I think that it is a two-level approach. Under the Lisbon Treaty, we have the so-called subsidiarity check, a procedure that lets interested national parliaments to get involved if they want to. 

The second approach, I believe, cannot be written into a treaty or an agreement, but calls on MEPs to talk with other members in their national parliament. It is as simple as that. We have built up among German Liberals in the EP quite a regular exchange with our group in the German parliament. 

At least once a month, one of us is in Berlin, updating MPs on what is going on, receiving feedback on the issues that they are interested in. They tell us what their opinions are and whether we should have a look into it, which also goes the other way around. We are able to attend working group meetings in the German Parliament and so on. 

As an MEP, it should be part of our job to responsibly engage with our colleagues in the national parliament. I think it is very difficult to institutionalise this personal effort. 

ALDE’s chair, Graham Watson, has started his own campaign to become the president of the European Parliament. Do you think this kind of initiative should be welcomed? What is your feeling about this? 

It has two positive effects. Firstly, he shows that as a group, we Liberals demand to play an important role within the European Parliament. We have competent people who can take these positions. 

The second effect is that he is forcing the other groups to come out, to show if they have a candidate or not. Watson is triggering a discussion. It is difficult to estimate his chances of success. 

If the two big groups agree [on the name of EP rotating president, as they did in the past], Watson’s chances are close to zero. If they cannot agree, then he is in the game again. I mean it is a brave step to do that because I mean right now, he might not have the highest chances. I wish him good luck. 

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