Pro-EU political parties will further on dominate in the EP
Dark, doomsday predictions that the elections for 751 members of the European Parliament, held between 23-26 May 2019 in 28 EU member states, would bring about a hung body, wherein the far right forces together with populists of various kinds would dominate, did not materialize. However the said ones have increased their share of votes and seats as compared with the previous convocation, and however traditional political blocks came out weaker, plus internally divided and unsure of the loyalty of some of their members regarding the respect for their basic values, and after all, taken the probability of (a no-deal, chaotic) Brexit in the course of this year, hard facts still are that majority of EU citizens went out to vote for the main legislative body of their union, and that pro-EU political parties thereby took a solid majority. Moreover, some new opportunities for Europe, including for its liberals, aroused out of the polling results.
Almost 51% of all EU voters turned out to the polls, way more than in 2014 (42.6%). In the countries that are considered as the „backbone“ of the EU, Germany and France, the turnout was ca. 61% and 50%, respectively. Other countries whose citizens also voted by majority were Belgium (with the amazing 88.5% turnout), Luxebourg, Malta, Denmark, Spain, Austria, Greece, Sweden, Italy, Lithuania and Romania. However, sadly, in six countries the turnout was below one third of the electorate: Portugal, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Slovenia and Slovakia (the latter one with the worse turnout in the entire EU, of just 22.7%).
The biggest political group in the EP, European People`s Party (EPP), pro-EU conservatives, came out weakened: they fell from 221 to 179 MEPs. The second largest – itself centre-left - group, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), also fell, from 191 to 153 MEPs. Both groups, who were so far the (power-sharing) leaders in the EP, still remain the two biggest ones, but without a majority for their „grand“ coalescing, i.e. without further opportunity to manage the EU affairs with little - or no considerable - influence by other parliamentary groups.
Two smaller pro-EU groups have but advanced: liberals together with various other centrists, and the Greens. Liberals from ALDE formed a strategic alliance with the French President Emmanuel Macron`s ReM movement and with a new pro-liberal group USR-Plus in Romania, where after all of them might together have 105 seats in the EP. Greens with their allies have increased their share in the new EP, from 50 to 69 MEPs.
On the far-right and populist scene, EFDD has advanced from 48 to 54 MEPs, while the newly founded populist and „souverenist“ block named Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) took 58 seats. Largely due to the bad result of Tories in the UK, the EU- (and/or EMU-sceptic) conservatives from the ECR have fallen from 70 to 63 MEPs.
Emancipation from a de facto bipartisan order
With 14.5% of the total EU vote cast, liberals are the third force in the EP. Their strenght, together with the weakening of the EPP and the S&D, led some liberal analysts (such as K.-H.Paqué) to point out at an opportunity for a new political culture in the EP, the one of more productive dialogue and cooperation between EU-loyal political groups, contrary to the (so far experienced) domination („cartel power“) of the two biggest ones, which often manifested itself through their neglect of citizens` concerns, behind-the-door deals, and/or „lukewarm moralizing“ when action was needed. This new culture of dialogue, compromise, but also of more responsibility for taking actions which citizens expected, might reduce divisions (and polarization) that existed in many societies in EU countries.
What do liberals do or can do
True, in a number of EU countries, results that liberals or their allies had achieved showed that dedication to one`s values and program is an asset which citizens might recognize and reward. In the Brexit-torn UK, where both the biggest political parties showed complete incompetence in dealing with the main issue their country was facing (future relations to the EU) and inability to constructively overcome the adjacent divisions in society, not least extreme Brexiteers of Nigel Farage, but also the staunchly pro-EU LibDems topped the polls (the latter coming second, ahead of Tories and Labour). In France, the centrist movement Republique en Marche is the main protector of the values of Republic against the populist tide. In Netherlands, liberals of both wings also play a similar, very important role, in the government as well as in society as a whole. In Spain or Romania, or together with Greens also in Germany, liberals are those that question the classic left-versus-right divides, or the unholy “grand” coalition alliances way across the political spectrum. In Hungary, liberals gradually arise as the main challenge to populism and rightism in general. But, if divided to too many groups, such as in Croatia, liberals usually squander opportunities they had, which itself opens space for the rise of the far-right.
Liberalism is mainly about advancing freedom. As the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung`s project Freedom Barometer Europe has demonstrated year and again since 2013, the more freedom is understood in its entirety by those who implement public policies, the better results are achieved in advancing various separate aspects of freedom. Where there is more economic freedom, there is less corruption, hence among other more independent judiciary, hence better maintained democratic standards in politics and media and better safeguarded human rights of all kinds. And where there is more of the rule of law and of the respect for individual human rights, there is more space for liberal economic order instead of a socialist or a crony-capitalist one. Correlations between more freedom in a country and better “human development” in it are also proven, both in theory and in the field research.
Many EU`s problems need liberal answers and some already have
Political landscape in the UK as created in May 2019 showed that fast and robust leaving of the EU without an agreement with it would not promote political forces that had claimed they offered even more economic freedom than the EU with all its rules elaborated in detail could. To the contrary, such a walkout would promote closedness and isolation, while it would seriously endanger the very existence of many companies and many jobs, plus that it would bring uncertainty in the daily life of those with “wrong” citizenship. To the contrary, die-hard “remainers” (among whom liberals lead the way) advocate either a new referendum or close UK ties to the EU after leaving it, worried for human rights of citizens, for judicial uncertainty and for economic havoc that might come out of a chaotic Brexit.
Immigration is another challenge that EU faces. It is at the same time a problem and an opportunity. The more orderly the process is (and Dutch liberals have been among those who contributed most to its getting back to order after 2015, by their strong support to the EU-Turkey deal) and the more productive integration of migrants there is (whereby German example tells one such is indeed possible), the less ground is left for irresponsible populism which shouts about problems but offers no solutions. True, populists in Germany started changing their beloved themes after statistics had showed that integration policies had started working , now themselves switching to the environmental issues (namely to climate-skepticism).
Climate change is a huge challenge in front of the entire mankind. Liberals share their worries with Greens (for whom it is a major political theme) but do not necessarily share the same idea on what should be remedies. But, the composition of the EP after May 2019 shows that Greens will be inescapable in any constructive dialogue by the pro-EU political groups in the EP, in spite that many of their radical ideas about resolving the climate or environmental issues are, from the liberal point of view, economically unsustainable and/or socially dubious. Environment protection is a field of political work where EU liberals still have to offer new solutions, both environmentally and financially/economically sustainable, plus respectful for individual human rights. Only that might give them comparative advantage against Greens on one and populists on the other side.
In the struggle for rule of law, liberals have already offered superior solutions. In countries such as Estonia, the correlation between economic freedom and retreat of corruption is understood better than anywhere else in the EU. Citizens recognize that and constantly reward such policies. On the other hand, in numerous other “countries in transition” liberals have to stick even more, and better, to their own principles, in order to prove that they have indeed been different from the others.
United Europe was founded on peace intentions and it could be even said that it is all about peace. Seemingly “eternal enemies” have reconciled under its auspices. And some others, such as Serbs and Albanians, are (however slowly and painfully) led by the EU mediation into their future reconciliation. EU`s enlargement and “stabilization and association” policies have strongly contributed to the absence of wars in many troubled regions of the continent during the beginning of this century, yet still have to become a more powerful tool of reform, reconciliation, democratization and advance of rule of law in transition countries, especially in Western Balkans.
Privacy protection as a new challenge
Finally, protection of privacy is gradually becoming one of the main fields in protection of the individual human rights. It is not only anti-terror struggle that endangered it during the past two decades. But, it was also the development of artificial intelligence, of engines capable of collecting and processing enormous amounts of information about an individual, and about opportunities that uncontrolled use of such information gave to the governments, to have almost an absolute power over the individual by illegitimate collection and misuse thereof.
In years to come, EP will deal with a lot of regulation that touches upon this theme – be it trade policies with countries that cherish human rights far less than EU does, or legislation which should limit the governments in collecting, processing, cross-checking, or using the information about their citizens. Preventing a new, emerging techno-totalitarianism from spreading into the EU might be not least a big challenge but also a big opportunity for liberals, to show themselves up in the field where they are usually the best, and thus to contribute to the further development and rise of freedom and democracy in the European Union.