Socialist-Liberal clash marks EU campaign start

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In an attempt to drum up public interest in the European elections, socialist and liberal parties launched scathing attacks on one another last week in a series of press releases and open letters published in the Belgian press.

As European liberal democrats gathered in Brussels to launch their election campaign on Wednesday (15 April), socialist leaders warned them to “tread carefully” when backing the extension of the EU’s single market to sensitive sectors such as energy, postal services, railways and health care. 

The warning came in a letter co-signed by Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Party of European Socialists (PES) and Dutch and French-speaking leaders of the Socialist Party in Belgium, Caroline Gennez (Flemish S.PA) and Elio di Rupo (Wallonian PS). 

“How do you propose to use the single market to ensure these services remain high-quality, affordable and accessible to all?,” the three socialists ask. “While Liberal MEPs have been arguing for an open market for health care without regard for the implications, we Socialists have been working hard to make sure that a privilege for a few – less than 1% of patients – does not undermine health care for many,” they argued in an open letter published in the French-speaking Belgian daily Le Soir. 

Liberals did not hesitate to retaliate. “Public healthcare systems all over the EU have shown to be falling short of patients’ demands. Socialists regard patients as recipients; Liberals regard patients as consumers who demand the possible services,” reads a letter sent the following day (16 April) by the liberals to their socialist challengers. 

“Patients want choice, and competition will lead to better health coverage for all Europeans,” they added, while arguing that 12 years of Socialist government in the UK did not help to remedy the failures of the British National Health Service, for example. 

The moves came in spite of campaign delays in key European countries such as France, where major parties have been struggling to finalise their electoral lists for the upcoming European elections in June (EURACTIV 10/04/09). 

Single market ‘backbone’ of liberal manifesto

The strengthening of the single market is the backbone of the Liberals’ election manifesto. Cross-border competition, knowledge sharing and free trade in goods and services are essential for increasing the EU’s international economic competitiveness and creating growth and jobs. 

Socialists call for the completion of the Union’s internal market in their manifesto too. They advocate reducing red tape for business to generate more European trade and jobs, by simplifying the legal framework for SMEs and boosting financial resources for innovation. 

Socialists hold on to Services Directive’s success

But public services are a different ball game. In 2006, the Socialist Group in the European Parliament secured an important victory by excluding health and social services from the infamous Services Directive, write the Socialists, who will do their utmost to maintain the integrity of public services, “so that European competition and business rules do not run counter to citizens’ rights”. 

Trying to put things into perspective, the Liberals said they did not see the single market as an end in itself, but “rather as the most efficient means to meet citizens’ demands”. 

The Liberals finally warned the Socialists against trading such tit-for-tat campaign barbs. “A few weeks ago, you questioned our Liberal commitment to equal opportunities,” liberals said. “But actions speak louder than words,” they added. 

Citing examples, the Liberals stressed that the ELDR president and secretary-general are both women. Moreover, out of the seven ELDR vice-presidents, five are women, while 42% of Liberal MEPs in Parliament are female, they pointed out (the Parliament average is 31%). 

Decisive force: Liberals in the next Parliament

If polls provide any indication of the future outcome of the EU elections, the next European Parliament will strike a balance between centre right and centre left, and the Liberals will be influential in siding with socialists or conservatives on different issues. 

From 4-7 June, 375 million citizens will be called upon to vote for the 736 members who will represent them in the European Parliament until 2014. Over the past 30 years, since the first EU elections, the Parliament has gained more powers, but many citizens still see the ballot as a national mid-term poll to punish the parties in government.

The EU assembly has launched a Europe-wide awareness campaign which experts say will not really encourage citizens to go and vote (EURACTIV 18/03/09). The involvement of the media, especially TV, in member states is seen as key to increasing voter turnout (EURACTIV 18/02/09). 

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