Here is my report back to Liberal Democrats who directly elected me (thank you!) to the party’s delegation to the European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party (ELDR).
The second Council meeting of 2011 (there are two annually) and the annual Congress took place in Palermo, Sicily on 23-25 November at the invitation of the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Principles) Party.
There were resolutions and emergency resolutions proposed by member parties, too many to summarise here, of which the most significant was, I think, one from the UK Liberal Democrats on the prospect of war with Iran. The gist is that it expresses concern at military rhetoric, top-level consultations between military and political leaders and the stationing of military assets off the Iranian coast pointing to the possibility of pre-emptive attacks being launched by Israel and the USA against Iran., and it calls for steps to be taken in Europe to dissuade them. When the US military are still engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan one might think that they would not contemplate such a thing, but the evidence is worrying. After the Iraq “dodgy dossier” saga we do not need another war based on dubious grounds.
The main theme resolution, emanating from the ELDR leadership, was on the EU budget. As amended and adopted, it is a long resolution but the gist is, I think, that it welcomes the European Commission’s proposals to reduce the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support to 36.2% of the total budget for a new 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and affirms that on the expenditure side it must continue to move away from price support and export subsidies for agricultural produce. It calls for inclusion of funding for alternative areas of expenditure with the common feature of being areas where the Union can deliver more than individual countries acting alone (“European added value”). Climate change, renewable energy, water management, biodiversity and innovation are such areas. Research and development co-operation, avoiding wasteful duplication of effort, is a specific example. On the income side, the theme resolution as finally adopted contains a passage welcoming debate on reform of EU revenues but specifically rejects the European Commission’s proposals for new own resources to include a financial transaction tax or an EU-level VAT. Delegates were obviously worried that this might increase the overall tax burden on member states although it would not necessarily do so. Against the background of financial crisis as the world struggles to cope with the near-collapse of the banks by austerity measures meaning hardship for entire populations, Congress was in no mood to approve an increase in taxation nor in the EU budget overall. In failing to include wording from the UK Liberal Democrats referring to a possible EU-level tax on carbon, Congress in my view threw out the baby with the bath water, but I trust that we will bring this back to the next Congress.
The Congress elected British MEP Sir Graham Watson unopposed as its new President. In a speech too meaty to summarise adequately here, Sir Graham made it known that his Presidency would be energetic and ambitious for liberalism in Europe. He expressed a vision of our troubled times in which crisis is opportunity. His analysis was that socialism is in terminal decline and old political élites are reeling from electoral punishment for having contributed to the financial crisis that is bringing hardships to the people, while climate change poses an existential threat. He argued that liberal principles and values had the solutions and retreat into nationalism did not. He announced his intention to welcome more Democratic and Reform parties into our grouping. His aim was so that the ALDE bloc of MEPs in the European Parliament grows while the EPP and Socialist blocs wane. He also intends to press for changes that increase democratic legitimacy including the direct election of MEPs by one European election rather than 27 national elections.
ELDR’s business between congresses is managed by a Bureau, and Congress elected to it five Vice-Presidents, four in normal course and one to fill the seat vacated by Sir Graham Watson on becoming President. I have to mention one of these Vice-Presidents: Leoluca Orlando, of the Italia Dei Valori party. He, while mayor of Palermo from 1985 to 1990 and 1993 to 2000, courageously took steps to decouple public procurement from Mafia-owned businesses by removing their companies from the list of those allowed to tender for new contracts.
At this momentous time for Italians, emerging from the long bad dream of Berlusconi’s premiership, Italy of Principles Party leader Antonio di Pietro MP told us that the Berlusconi era had left deep scars. It was the end of Berlusconi but not of Berlusconism: a nexus of privilege, selfishness and giving precedence to local and family interests. He spoke of the need for cultural restoration of legality, public ethics and civic consciousness, which are the basis of every market economy. He told us that Italy of Principles supported the new Monti government of technocrats. This involved some sacrifice in that, had the scheduled elections taken place, the party would have done well.
Consistently with the theme of European added value, Sir Graham Watson spoke of some big-picture inspiring projects for Europe ELDR activists to campaign for. One example he mentioned is the European electricity supergrid, a means of connecting up and distributing Europe’s renewable energy long-distance for use throughout the region. These ideas were explored at a fringe meeting on the renewables revolution and an electricity supergrid, at which the management of a “smart” grid, fed by sources of renewable energy including solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal energy, was discussed. He acknowledges the science that points to dangerous climate chaos from burning fossil fuels, and he has taken up the cause of the electricity supergrid as part of a solution to that. He also sees it as an answer to the security threat posed by dependency on fossil fuels from outside countries, evidenced by the behaviour of governments who have in recent winters not hesitated to turn off the supply pipe to Europe when it suited them, leaving Europeans shivering without fuel. In addition to these factors there is the relentless rise in the price of oil and in Europe’s energy bill, because world supply is finite while demand is growing. For these reasons even climate change sceptics can scarcely deny that it is in Europe’s interests to invest in the supergrid. And the beauty of the supergrid proposal is that it deals with objections (mainly aimed at wind energy) that renewable energy sources that are intermittent are no good. Even if the wind is not blowing in your area, wind energy from elsewhere in Europe can be brought to you via the supergrid. As for solar energy, the sun doesn’t shine at night, but its heat can be stored for use at night. The fringe meeting speakers explained that energy storage is in practice not difficult, provided that legislative changes permit electricity grid companies to build and be owners of storage facilities (which currently is not allowed). As people across the EU begin to see the Internet-like potential for a diversity of sources to feed energy into the grid, I believe this proposal will be a winner.
The Council accepted a membership application from the Democratic Alliance Party of Greece, a new party led by Dora Bakoyannis who was expelled from the Nia Demokratia party last year for voting with the Socialist-led government in favour of the EU-IMF backed financial stability loan. If the crisis bringing home to Greeks the impossibility of continuing previous high-spending policies is an opportunity for realignment of political forces away from alternating Socialist and Conservative government, it could just be that this new party emerges as a significant player in the liberal centre.
ELDR now offers associate membership applications to individuals for 25 euros per annum. If you are interested in joining, visit www.eldr.eu/associate
The next Council will be in May 2012. The next Congress will be in Dublin in November 2012, and its theme will be the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It will be based on an excellent joint paper called “A Liberal Roadmap for Energy Transition” produced with ELDR backing by the UK Liberal Democrats, the Swedish Centerpartiet and the Netherlands D66 party. ELDR is doing good work.
And Palermo is a great place to visit!