Top EU poll candidate: ‘Spain ready for a liberal alternative’

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After over fifteen years of a “fierce and brutal two party-system,” Spain is ready for a third moderating force to inject some reasonable and sensible discourse into Spanish politics, redress abstentionism and allow the country to embark on a new economic deal, said Sean O’Curneen, the Centro Democratico Liberal’s top candidate, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Sean O’Curneen is secretary-general of the ALDE Group in the Committee of the Regions and the top candidate of Spain’s Centro Democratico Liberal (CDL) in the European elections.

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

You are top of the CDL list, which is not very well known in Spain and does not run among top parties. What is it: a movement or a party? 

I tend to believe a movement is more than a political party. I do think there is a movement in Spain to provide an alternative to the socialists and conservatives, part of which is the CDL (Centro Democratico Liberal). This party came about from a number of avenues. My own personal involvement goes back to my arrival in Brussels in 2004. 

After leaving Spain and having worked in Britain for a few years for the Mayor of London, I was recruited to come to Brussels as secretary-general of the ALDE group in the Committee of the Regions. I arrived here in October 2004. 

When I arrived here, it was poignant to me that the people of Spain do not have a choice other than the socialist party or the conservative party, they do not have the possibility of voting for a centrist, liberal progressive party. 

Therefore, I was determined to use my position and my contacts here in Brussels to help Spanish liberals and centrists to reorganise. 

Are you saying that there is no liberal party in Spain? 

There are small groups that claim to be liberal; some are genuinely liberal with little potential. When I heard about the Centro Democratico Liberal and got the information that was sent to me by Manuel Alonso, I joined this party. 

He is significant because he was one of the founders in the 1980s of the CDS (Centro Democratico e Social). He founded CDS together with Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez, who was Spain’s first prime minister and a man who engineered and steered Spain’s transition to democracy. 

The CDS party having had a reasonably successful decade in the 1980s and being the ELDR representative in Spain, unfortunately lost all its seats in a parliamentary election in 1991. One of the MPs who lost his seat was Manuel Alonso. 

Why did they lose all their seats? Do you think they failed to have ideological clout, or was it due to a changing society?

As often as it is the case in politics, there is no single reason to why things happen. There are a lot of theories for the disappearance of CDS, but a number of factors I think are indisputable, for example the fact that the party was led by Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez, who had dominated Spanish politics for more than ten years. Even though he was no longer in government, his presence was still very much felt. 

It is always the case in politics: if somebody has been around for too long, people turn away from you. They want to try out something new. 

It is also the case that Spanish people were experimenting, because people don’t reach collective decisions. They take individual decisions, which all in all point to the same direction. 

It was also the time when the Spanish conservative party was starting to modernise, demonstrating that they are not any longer the Francoist party, that they were becoming a new European conservative party. They had a young leader, José Maria Aznar, who then became prime minister some years later. 

So, there were a number of factors that encouraged Spanish voters to experiment. 

But that was then. Now what we find after fifteen years of the fierce and frankly brutal two party-system, what we call in Spanish ‘bipartilismo’, we find that there is a real desire for a moderating force that will inject some reasonable and sensible discourse into Spanish political debate, and with its own presence will force the other two parties themselves to be a bit more moderate and sensible. 

We feel that the electorate in Spain is actively seeking and wanting something like this. From the perspective of European politics, it is undoubtedly the case that a liberal Europe cannot be constructed without the participation of liberals. 

How are you organised for the European elections?

In Spain there is only one constituency. We have a presence in all provinces. There is of course this added complication of Treaty of Lisbon or Treaty of Nice. These elections will take place under the Nice Treaty, which means the number of MEPs drops from 54 to 50. 

But as per the decision of the Council, back in December, the votes will be counted as if Spain had 54 MEPs, so that if and when the Lisbon Treaty gets ratified, those extra four will come into Parliament. 

So, we have a list of 54 candidates. I am first on the list. Second is Gema Sambruno, who is an expert in renewable energy. 

It is rather surprising that the top two candidates are Brussels-based. Why this choice? 

One of the things that we absolutely reject is the manner in which the two big parties perceive and treat the European institutions, in a way as though the European Parliament was a retirement ground for some of their politicians who need some kind of compensation for having succeeded at national or regional level. 

There is a minimal effort, and frankly the minimum that they do is not enough to explain the importance of the European Parliament. To explain to the people that the quality of the air that they breathe, that some of the services they receive in their cities, are being decided according to decisions that have been taken in Brussels. There is no effort in Spain to explain this. 

The way in which the two big parties approach the EP and approach the whole process of establishing their lists is a real disservice to the people of Spain. One of our raisons d’être is to tell people: ‘Look, the European Union is part of your daily lives. We as CDL are absolutely committed to it.’ 

So many solutions to the problems of Spain have come from the European Union. The list is endless, but you can start with two big things. The European Union is a guarantee to Spain’s democratic stability, a guarantee for Spain’s economic progress. Those two facts alone are what have made Spanish people pro-European over so many years. There is some kind of growing Euroscepticism. But we are determined to say that the days of purely national politics are over. 

Therefore, for us it is quite the contrary: it is an asset to have the list topped by two people who know how the EU works and who are determined to explain to the Spanish people how it works and how they can be involved. 

But CDL does not have any MPs in the Spanish parliament. Do you think this will give you enough legitimacy to gain ground in the European elections? 

Undoubtedly we have a considerable explaining exercise to do. We are not just campaigning for votes; we are also in an explanation and information campaign on why this party will be embarking on this challenge. Spanish politics is not easy. It can be very vicious. 

Now you mentioned legitimacy: we have in terms of the European Union perhaps the strongest legitimacy that any third party or alternative to the socialists and conservatives can have. That is the full support of the European liberals, which is the third largest political force in the European Union. 

The party was unanimously accepted into the ELDR party two weeks ago. But even before that, there was a presentation in the European Parliament on 24 September with Graham Watson and Annemie Neyts sitting together with Manuel Alonso and myself. I was at the launch of ELDR campaign. 

Is that enough? Will it not be seen as a top-down process from Brussels, rather than from the grassroots? 

You cannot set up a party from Brussels and you cannot direct it from Brussels. If there are no people on the ground to carry forward the message, willing to go out and campaign, willing to bring in other people, than forget it: there is simply no chance. I would be the first to remove my name from the top of the list from a party that has no intention or motivation of generating some grassroots’ involvement. 

This is definitely not an operation steered from Brussels. This is a very much symbiotic relationship between a number of people in Brussels, and a lot of people in Spain who want this to happen. 

Because this is a European election, we have two Spaniards living in Brussels at the top of the list. But the rest of the list is made up of people who live and work in communities in Spain, in the private sector, civil society and local councils. 

Number three on the list is a Spanish local councillor in a small town in the province of Murcia. Number four is a British national who has lived in Spain for 20 years and is deputy major of a small town in the province of Valencia. Number five is a tax consultant, who lives in a small town outside of Madrid. 

In some EU countries, parties from the left and right have decided to put big names on top of their lists, like France’s UMP with Michel Barnier and Rachida Dati, and Italy’s Popolo della liberta with Silvio Berlusconi. Some commissioners have gone back to their country to help their party win the European elections. I suppose that will be the case of Spain. How will you balance this in your campaign?

First of all… one important trend: abstentionism in Spain is growing. Some opinion polls show that turnout in these elections is going to be as low as 35%, which is a disaster. A very large proportion of abstentionism is among young people. 

Now, that is a democratic tragedy. When young people turn away from politics and democracy that is a tragedy. It is not that they are not concerned about politics, but they just feel alienated from politics and the way politics is being conducted. That is particularly acute in Spain. 

You mentioned top-down. In the two big parties you have a top-down approach. When young people turn away from politics and democracy that is a tragedy. It is not that they are not concerned about politics, but they just feel alienated from politics and the way politics is being conducted. That is particularly acute in Spain. 

They promise at elections, they ask for the vote and then they forget about the citizens. They make little effort to involve Spanish people in democratic life. In the US, 70% of Americans are members of an association of some kind; in Spain it’s 20%. Civil society in Spain is very weak and they have done nothing over 30 years of government to strengthen civil society and to encourage it. 

The fact that we don’t have famous people at the top of our list for us is the opposite of being a problem: it is an asset. We are saying to the people: we have a list with normal people, we have a list of people who are concerned about the problems of society and the world, but they are normal people. 

But do you think people feel the need for a third party, or is it just not the need of an elite? 

Some people question the need for a party like this or even question the chances for a party like this, given the history of Spanish centrist and liberals. A lot of people in Spain do so too. Even people who desire a party like this, sometimes they saying: We need a party like this, but it is impossible. For them, Spain is a lost cause. 

There is this defeatism because of Spanish history being as it is. But also a lot of people tend to remember what is negative is Spanish history. However, a lot of it is also inspiring in Spanish history. 

The first use of the word ‘liberal’ came from Spanish history. The very first liberal constitution was in 1812 in Cadiz. From the liberal point of view, Spain has a very inspiring history in many ways. 

There have been of course very dark episodes and these, believe it or not, still have a weight in political, social, cultural climate in Spain. Therefore, there is this defeatism. 

Are you referring to the Franco years? 

Yes, and the civil war. There are people in Spain who say: the Spanish cannot be centrist, cannot be liberal, open-minded, you can only be either left or right. If you are not in the right that means you are automatically in the left and vice versa. 

I don’t believe, and nobody in the CDL, believes in this defeatism and that the Spanish people are different from the rest of Europeans. If you see the European political map, you see that there is so much more diversity in the political spectrum of other European countries. I simply refuse to believe that the Spanish people are any different to that. 

We demonstrated in an overwhelming majority in a referendum in 1977 that they wanted democracy, just like the other historic democracies in Europe and I don’t believe they are in any way different in that respect. Furthermore, every indication that we are getting from personal messages and through the level of abstentionism, we see there is a real desire for greater political plurality and in particular for a moderating force, that injects some sensible politics into Spain political discourse. 

What is sensible politics? What issues do you think Spanish people are mostly concerned about, and what are the messages of your campaign that you feel are going to convince people to vote for you? 

First, there is a little bit of confusion in Spain about liberalism and what it is. In France and Italy there is huge amount of confusion, but in Spain there is confusion but in a positive sense. A lot of people want to be liberal, but there is some confusion because it is equated with neo-liberalism. 

Liberalism in the European sense it is about a progressive, open and fair economy, it is about maximising the potential of every individual, it is about finding the right balance in society, balance about rights and responsibilities, balance in the economy with clear and transparent rules, allowing maximum freedom for entrepreneurial activities. Spain is a very unbalanced economy. 

Spain was the first to enter recession and will be the last to come out of it. Why? Because the economic model in Spain is unbalanced. Even though it has been obvious, neither the conservatives nor the socialists have done anything to change the model, which relies excessively on tourism and the construction sectors. 

Both of them are perfectly valid and legitimate and indeed important, but you cannot depend only on those sectors. 17% of Spanish GDP comes from the construction industry. According to some estimates, but I don’t know how valid they are, it is more than 17% if you include all the suppliers. I even read one figure and it is about 35%. 

At the start of this year, we had exceeded three million unemployed; we are definitely going to reach four million this year. 

So, we stand for a balanced economy which a much greater role and say for small and medium-sized enterprises, to scientists, researchers and innovators. According to a study by the European Commission, Spanish private companies invest in R&D 23 times less than British and French companies, and 40 times less than German companies. 

Spain has the longest number of working hours per person in all of Europe, but one of the lowest in terms of productivity. That is madness. That is something that is not working properly. This is a country, which in population terms is more or less on a par with these other countries, and yet you have that minute level of some investment in comparison with those countries. That has got to change. 

Spain needs to produce much more. Not just Spain needs it. Europe needs Spain to be much more performing. Because if Europe wants to be competitive in the world, it needs all of its countries to be performing. It is unacceptable, from our point of view and the Spanish people’s point of view, to have this economic model and to have Spain to underperform as it is. 

The economy is one of the big issues…what are the other issues? 

Another issue is surely climate change and energy security. Spain is so dependent on gas supply from North Africa; it is dependent on oil from Mexico. Inherently there is nothing wrong with that, but we do know today that energy dependency is unwise. 

In a country as big as Spain, with the natural resources that it has, to be so dependent and not be able to produce as much as your energy supply from renewables (solar, wind, hydropower etc) is just madness. Spain is therefore unable to meet its Kyoto targets, let alone the post-Kyoto targets. 

That is one of the area where we have full commitment to using this serious economic crisis and tragic for many families, but taking it as an opportunity to change the Spanish economic model towards one which is productive, moving towards a green economy and have real investments in renewable energy. 

The third chapter of particular interest to us is democracy. One of the big problems in Spanish local politics is corruption. We have serious cases to the point that the municipality of Marbella had to be taken over by the central government two years ago. 

That is being multiplied by an alarming number of cases across the country, all linked to construction and the large amount of money that is connected to that. 

That obviously creates real disasters in urban planning. There are a number of associations that have been created in recent years, which help a little bit the statistics of civil society, most of them involving the EU population in Spain. These are fighting the abusive power, mad urban planning which then has an impact on the natural environment. 

Incidentally, a person who is number four on our list is a British citizen who has given a presentation to the petitions committee of the European Parliament denouncing some of these cases where people, as part of these abuses, have had their houses taken away from them. The European Parliament condemned these abuses. 

We have a strong commitment to sanitising, improving Spanish democracy at all levels. At local level, but also at national level in terms of the political plurality, promoting active citizenship and ultimately campaigning for more open democracy at the European level. 

If you had to make a wish for the outcome, what would that be? 

It is difficult to predict. But six months ago our party was completely unknown. In the last months its visibility has grown and in the last two weeks our visibility has been growing even more, almost exponentially. 

The fact to the matter is that by the 6th and 7th of June, there will be many people in Spain, Spanish and EU citizens, going to the polling booths knowing about our party. Whether they will vote for us, it is not sure. 

But certainly, many more will know about our party. Regardless of the result, this is a long-term process. We are not just in to get a couple of people elected to the European Parliament. But I believe in the need for a permanent presence of a liberal, centrist party. 

Our main objective for these elections is to let people know there is an alternative. 

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