The announcement that Libertas candidates would be running for election right across the EU’s 27 member states in the European Parliament elections generated great attention among fellow pro-Europeans. For years, the many who support European integration but resent the bureaucratic and undemocratic behemoth of the EU have been faced with frustrating choices at the ballot box. There has, of course, been a plethora of parties that oppose the EU, but most have run on a nationalist and eurosceptic banner. It’s a standpoint that appals me and the many volunteers who have supported Libertas before, during and since last year’s Irish ‘No’ vote. Books have been written on the many positives European integration brings, but simply reiterating the four main freedoms – of movement, goods, services and capital – which have flourished during 50 years of peace and prosperity serve to neatly summarise its attributes.
Yet it’s hard to remember these incredible freedoms when faced with the ugly response of Europe’s political elites to the Irish electorate’s rejection of the Lisbon treaty. The utter contempt shown to voters has been staggering and time and time again we saw the Irish people insulted. From Germany’s Dublin ambassador Christian Pauls and his sly insinuations about how many voters came from rural communities to the unnamed official who referred to the Irish as ‘bastards’, we saw that these unelected officials did not just view elections as a problem to be negotiated; they were quite simply bewildered as to why you would ask European voters for anything other than their taxes. The people ‘do not understand’ the Lisbon treaty, just as they did not understand the Nice Treaty, and just as the French and the Dutch did not understand the Constitution. The workings of European government are apparently too complex to be understood by mere citizens: They can only be interpreted by the experts.
“There was a similar culture of secrecy in the banks and on the trading floors as there is in the EU; the same insistence that the experts know best”
But who are these experts? Maybe Ireland’s EU Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, who said, ‘no sane person would bother to read [the treaty] because of the technocratic, near incomprehensible language of every sentence, clause, paragraph and page’? Caroline Flint, the UK Minister for Europe, who claimed the ‘No’ voters had ‘misunderstood’ the treaty and who then admitted she hadn’t read it herself, but was ‘briefed by experts’? Perhaps the experts include those who couldn’t understand why the ‘ungrateful’ Irish weren’t successfully bribed ‘after all the money you got’? And perhaps they also number Martin Territt, head of the European commission’s Dublin representation, who announced not long ago that another €1.8m of EU funds is to be pumped into encouraging the Irish to vote the ‘right’ way.
There’s an analogy to be drawn here with the economic crisis. There was a similar culture of secrecy in the banks and on the trading floors as there is in the EU; the same insistence that the experts know best, and exactly the same disparity between a superficial obsession with regulation, red-tape and targets and a reality in which individuals were benefitting hugely and immorally from a lack of scrutiny. We should remember it took over 14 years for the auditors to sign off the EU accounts and that in 2007 €6bn went astray. We still don’t know how much EU money was lost in the Madoff scam, for example. All we know is that the European taxpayers will foot the bill, even though they cannot be trusted to vote on something as ‘technical’ as their own sovereignty or as ‘complicated’ as their own Constitution (which, if we’re honest is what the Lisbon treaty is). The bankers must envy the Commissioners – the latter not only get to hold on to their pensions, but their jobs too.
And this is why, far from being swept aside by the financial crisis, Libertas’ messages are more important than ever. The EU was born – first from the European Coal and Steel Community and then consolidated in the Treaty of Rome – out of harrowing circumstances. Europe was shattered not just economically but also in terms of its identity after the horrors of war. From that crisis emerged what we have today: over 50 years of peace and prosperity. I’m proud that my children are part of a generation of young people who see Europe as an opportunity for travel and work, as an extension of their own world rather than as something to fear. Democracy and economic dynamism made that possible, and historically neither functions properly without the other.
So it was interesting to see that the EU spent €28m on promoting the European parliamentary elections, in an attempt to reverse the 20 year slide in turn-out and close the ‘democratic deficit’. Libertas supported this as we too wanted to see this trend reversed. Our own success in the elections hinged on mobilising more of the voters who had retreated in apathy and frustration. But our analysis and proposals to redress this clearly differ from the EP’s marketing advisors at the Berlin communications agency Scholz & Friends.
In keeping with the attitudes of the Parliament, they clearly see the problems with voter turn-out as a lack of education in the ways of Brussels. The theme of their campaign is ‘It’s your choice’, with billboards asking voters their choices on food labelling, and offering an opportunity to leave video messages saying what they think. Yet as we have seen, there is a culture of opposition to real choice in the EU. It is resentfully offered and then ignored when it does not suit.
“Unlike many in Brussels, we respect the judgement of European voters. We know that we have to win their votes through convincing arguments rather than bribes or political chicanery”
People don’t vote because they know that their vote doesn’t count; 80% of the laws that will affect voters’ lives are passed by unelected Commissioners behind closed doors. The Parliament has little real impact on these decisions. There are 190 different parties represented, forced into watering down their views in coalitions that lead to petty squabbles and political in-fighting. Many of the parties are represented at national level, of course, and the parties tend to use their MEPs for such domestic gains as David Cameron’s decision in the UK to withdraw the Conservative Party from the EPP primarily to appease its eurosceptic wing.
Just as the EU Commissioners view the MEPs as little more than a symbolic nod towards genuine democracy, so do national politicians use the European elections for their own ends. I believe that MEPs have a vital function to play in maintaining the democratic accountability of the EU, and that they can make a difference. But first they need to be shaken out of the culture of complacency that has been fed by their generous benefit packages, and the knowledge that the details of their meetings and votes will be kept secret. Their unaccountability keeps them safe. European elected politicians, like their voters, need to be taken seriously: they need to know that their votes count.
Libertas is a pan-European party that has run candidates in all 27 member states. Our candidates are of the highest calibre who have sought to be elected with a clear mandate for reform without being governed by the agendas of national parties. They believe they will thus be in a stronger position to engage in the sort of cut-and-thrust debates with fellow MEPs which the Lisbon treaty is trying to silence.
All will represent Libertas’ core principles in creating a new, democratic and open EU. Central to this is accountability: if there is to be a Constitution – and I’m not absolutely against one in principle – there must be a referendum in all member states. If Europe’s laws are to have primacy over national sovereignty then those laws must be decided on by elected officials. Similarly, we should have fewer meetings, and those we do have should be held in the open and not behind closed doors, and we should all be allowed to know how MEPs are spending our money. Savings amounting to nearly €10bn could be made by trimming the typically bloated excesses of bureaucratic institutions.
Ours is a project unprecedented in scale. We know there are tough times ahead for Europe and the world, and we need strong leadership and solid policies to inspire people. That’s why we at Libertas have been taking our time to produce well-considered policies, ones that will channel our passion and enthusiasm for the European Union into workable strategies that can unlock the huge potential of European creativity. Like Barack Obama, we are building a grassroots campaign which makes use of the internet; we have some of the best minds in the business working on our website at www.libertas.eu where we will be unveiling our policies for the Europe ahead. Unlike many in Brussels, we respect the judgement of European voters. We know that we have to win their votes through convincing arguments rather than bribes or political chicanery. Pan-European politics is what Europe needs, and Libertas is leading the way.