Following on from yesterday’s post with Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, outgoing leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES), today’s post is an interview with Sir Graham Watson, the newly elected President of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform party (ELDR). As the name suggests, the ELDR is the liberal party in the European Parliament. Each European political party is comprised of national political parties from across the EU, and Sir Graham Watson is a member of the UK Liberal Democrats.
First up, we’ve had several people calling for a radical “paradigm shift” for Europe (including Rasmussen). Peter, for example, left a comment arguing that what he calls our “obsession with growth” is unsustainable. Is there an unresolvable tension, then, between economic growth and environmental sustainability?
I think there is a tension between growth and sustainability, but it depends how you define growth. We have a rather crazy system where if a person is in a car accident, then the repair of the car and the treatement are counted as economic growth. Clearly, growth has to be sustainable. So, economic growth in a way that will prejudice future generations to live on Earth is clearly not a good thing. On the other hand, trade between countries that drives down prices brings benefits for everybody.
Speaking of “tension”, there’s also a tension within contemporary liberal politics, isn’t there? Between what might be called “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism”? One seems to call for a greater focus on economic freedom and market economics, whilst the other places a greater focus on state intervention and welfare. Is it possible to resolve this tension?
One of the things I find interesting is that all of the political families are families which group people together around certain themes that define their ideology. I’m sometimes surprised, for example, when I look at the socialist group, which includes members that many people would describe as the extreme left and others that are barely centre-left, like the UK Labour Party. The liberal group, compared to the socialist group, is much more ideologically unified. Of course, it’s always easy to find unity in a smaller group.
But there is a tension, isn’t there, when Guy Verhofstadt (the leader of ALDE – the coalition of Watson’s ELDR and the centrist European Democratic Party in the European Parliament) repeatedly calls for a “United States of Europe”? Some members of the ELDR party are classical liberals and thus very much in favour of smaller government, and here is the leader of ALDE calling for a new, continent-wide level of government.
I don’t find any tension with that goal. One of the characteristics of liberals is that we have always been internationalist. We’ve always believed that it’s the way to provide peace and a society that no longer discriminates against people. Where there may be a tension is over the speed of that development towards a federal Europe. There are some who are federalists now; I believe my colleague Andrew Duff has recently published a pamphlet entitled Federal Union Now.
Aren’t there problems, though, with the way democracy works at the European level? After the Danish elections in September, for example, the Centre-right liberal party Venstre (a member of the ELDR) was ousted from power by a coalition including the Danish Social Liberal Party (another member of ELDR) and your party’s press release touted this as a great victory! Does it make sense for the ELDR to have more than one member in each EU country?
Logic and politics don’t always go together. Of course, it would make more sense to have one party in each country. For historical reasons, however, the one party in Denmark divided into two parties in 1905, the Radikale Venstre and the Venstre. They now sit on different sides of the political divide; one could broadly describe one as a social liberal party and the other as economically liberal. But, in fact, members of the two parties work together in the European Parliament. There is, as chance would have it, even a third liberal party in Denmark: the Liberal Alliance (though not a member of the ELDR). And I suppose the thing that liberals should celebrate is that liberal parties collectively polled 48% of the vote in Denmark.
What do YOU think? Does European Liberalism have a clear ideology? Or is there a tension between “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism” that cannot be resolved? Tell us why you vote (or DON’T vote) for European liberal parties in the comments. Let us know your thoughts in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.