Author: Tony Brown
On 27 September 2018, a Statement was issued by a Group of eight political leaders from centrist parties in seven EU member states calling for a campaign, over the months leading to the 2019 European Parliament elections, to reinvent the European Union:
“With eight months to go to European parliament elections in which the citizens of 27 countries will choose the Europe they want, we are launching an appeal: let’s reinvent Europe, to finally meet the expectations of its citizens and reclaim the original European promise.”
In his Sorbonne speech – ‘Initiatives for Europe’ – President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the 2019 elections, and called for a robust debate “that will enable us to rediscover the thread and stringency of many of our common policies. Let’s not be afraid of that debate. Let’s give the European elections a project to feed on and see who is for and who is against.” And to give the elections a new, democratic dimension he argued for transnational lists “that will enable Europeans to vote for a coherent, common project.” This proposal failed to gain support in respect of 2019 though it may reappear as an issue in preparing for 2024.
President Macron followed the logic of his transnational list concept by arguing for the forging of a progressive alliance to contest the election: “The idea is to make a coalition that brings progressives together around a joint platform transcending existing political families […] we are at an important moment for Europe where we’ve got to rebuild ourselves because the nationalists won’t hesitate to rebuild themselves. So we must not remain prisoners of political badges.”
He had not initially sought to affiliate his party to any of the existing European political families but has reached out to possible allies in a campaign to bypass traditional party moulds, appointing a team led by Christophe Castaner, executive head of the party and Secretary of State for Parliamentary Relations in the Office of the Prime Minister, to build a significant pro-European list for the Parliament elections, cooperating on an agreed range of policy issues. Castaner initiated work with a number of parties on a shared platform. The 27 September Statement – characterised as an ‘appeal’ – was the first product of this process.
For some time, Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and now a Liberal MEP, and President of the European Parliament’s ALDE Group, had advanced the argument for a pan-European liberal alliance, but without going into detail on organisational matters such as a name (‘Generation Europe’ could be one option). He told a French journal that “It will be something new, a movement. A pro-European alternative to nationalists. Our group is ready to participate in it starting from now, without delay. Each party will campaign together but keep their own identities. The goal is to create a decisive group in the future parliament that would be a tool to stem the nationalist tide.”
Mr Verhofstadt, who is convenor of the European Parliament’s Brexit coordination task force, has written of the European Union needing “vision and politicians who take the lead, who are inspired by an ambitious project that spans the entire continent, who are guided by what people really want.” He has publicly expressed sympathy for many of Emmanuel Macron’s ideas on the future direction of Europe and, significantly, shares the President’s criticism of the Spitzenkandidat process for choosing the President of the European Commission.
He has made contact with La Republique En Marche with a view to building a formal electoral alliance with ALDE which is the fourth largest group in the European Parliament, with 68 MPs out of 751. While some media carried stories in October indicating that an alliance had been agreed the French party quickly stated that “we are not ready for such an alliance” and indicated that Christophe Castaner’s efforts to create a progressive force were continuing.
The contacts made by both Mr Castanet and Mr Verhofstadt, and their discussions with each other, had produced their first concrete result in the 27 September Statement by the Group of Eight which includes one current, and three former, EU Prime Ministers and four party leaders: Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta since 2013; Dacian Ciolos the former Prime Minister of Romania; Matteo Renzi the former Prime Minister of Italy and Guy Verhofstadt the former Prime Minister of Belgium and current President of the Liberal ALDE Group in the European Parliament.
The other Group members are Christopher Castaner, the top official of La Republique En Marche in France; Olivier Chastel, President of the Reformist Movement in Belgium, the party of Prime Minister Charles Michel; Alexander Pechtold, Leader of the Democrats 66 party in the Netherlands, part of the Coalition Government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte; and Albert Rivera, Leader of Ciudadanos (Citizens) the largest single party in the Parliament of Catalonia, strongly opposed to Catalan nationalism.
The Group Statement
The Group gave its Statement the title ‘Let’s reinvent Europe to reclaim its promise and heal its divisions’ and argues that, as Europe “once again faces division and stagnation” they “refuse to be a new generation of sleepwalkers.” This is a reference to the history of the 20th century in which European leaders were seen to have ‘sleepwalked’ into two terrible wars and to “the decades of sustained effort and compromise needed over decades after 1945 to build a Europe of peace, prosperity and solidarity. We must act now, or the European project will stall. Worse, it could be suffocated by nationalist and populist forces for whom the EU represents a historical anomaly that must be undone.”
Europe at the moment, it is argued, appears too often overwhelmed by challenges – ecological, economic or those linked to migration – by citizens’ demands for less regulation and more action and “by commitments that it can no longer keep because it lacks a common vision and effectiveness in its functioning.” However, there is evidence that Europe can makes progress when the political will rallies Europeans around a clear and ambitious project. “It is not simply a question of overcoming the divisions that have led to the present impasse. Nor is it a question of continually reminding people that the Orbáns, Le Pens and Salvinis of Europe have nothing to offer beyond blaming the EU for all their evils. We must offer solutions.”
The Statement asserts that “our plan to reinvent Europe is clear” and identifies key issues across a wide range of issues and challenges, from reiteration of founding values and respect for democratic institutions to the Macron concept of “a sovereign Europe capable of acting forcefully in areas where individual member states are powerless.”
It then goes on to insist that “our method is clear” but that “nothing is ruled out” and to say: “We are ready to reform the EU treaties if necessary.” There is recognition that each country “must move forward at its own pace” and expresses determination to go beyond “existing partisan structures” if they are perceived to create obstacles.
The Statement concludes that there are just eight months “to convince the citizens of our own countries that Europe deserves this new project and that the citizens deserve this new Europe. Time is running out: we have eight months to get Europe to wake up.”
Following the appearance of the Statement, discussions began between the leadership of En Marche and a number of parties and key individuals in the centre of the spectrum of EU politics. These talks continued in a period of difficulty for the French party and its leader, President Macron. Public Opinion polling points increasingly to the former Front National of Marine le Pen, now called Rassemblement National (National Rally) moving ahead of En Marche in voters’ intentions.
The discussions have represented an important stage in the evolution of the campaigns of Emmanuel Macron and Guy Verhofstadt and reflect the concluding remarks of President Macron at the Sorbonne: “There is only one ambition in these proposals for action which I’ve just set out, the initiatives I’m proposing to those partners who want it and the course I wanted to map out before you: to give Europe back to itself and give it back to European citizens. We must convince them that the past 70 years did not simply happen by chance but were the fruit of an unyielding determination anchored in sheer optimism.”
An Alliance is Announced
As the European Liberal parties, in the ALDE configuration, met for their Annual Congress in Madrid on 9 November it emerged that a progressive alliance involving ALDE and En Marche had been agreed with a view to campaign in the European Parliament against the growing influence, and threat, of the various populist parties and groupings. A leading En Marche spokesperson, Astrid Panosyan, told the ALDE members: “Europeans know who Salvini and Orban are. It’s about time they know who we are. Let’s reshuffle traditional alliances across the aisle to focus on what matters for our fellow Europeans.” Her words brought a standing ovation from the 1,200 delegates.
The new alliance will see En Marche and ALDE campaigning together on a common electoral platform but without En Marche formally joining ALDE. That option may be addressed after the election. Emmanuel Macron is known to favour the building of a broader coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties to ensure a strong parliamentary majority. The Spanish party Ciudadanos, whose leader, Albert Rivera, signed the September Statement, is playing a key role in advancing the coalition project.
The Fianna Fáil leader, Micheal Martin, spoke to the Congress of the threat from populist parties and insisted: “If we work together, if we use the facts and if we show as much faith in our cause as they show in theirs we will defeat them and make 2019 the decisive year when the European Union regained its confidence and began moving forward again.”
In contrast with the EPP and Socialists, ALDE does not favour the Spitzenkandidat process for selecting the President of the European Commission while Emmanuel Macron is strongly opposed to the process. However, the alliance will put forward a ‘team’ of lead candidates from across the EU and including men and women. The ‘team’ will be announced in February and could include as many as seven individuals.
ALDE and En Marche will now sit down to reach agreement on common policies and to start inviting potential friends from centre-left and centre-right and from the Greens to present a progressive platform to voters and to confront the right wing, nationalist and populist parties such as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary.