Liberals value personal freedom highly, including in party politics. That is why we have a reputation for fierce internal debates and discussions, but on Saturday 1 February, we decided to do something different. At a special electoral meeting in Brussels, 80 per cent of the ALDE party’s delegates endorsed a joint ticket with Olli Rehn and myself to lead the Liberals into the European elections, with myself as the candidate for commission president while Olli Rehn was appointed candidate for another senior post, in the economic or foreign policy field.
We decided to stand united, because the coming elections will be an uphill battle against euroscepticism and populism. It will be a campaign against simplistic answers to complex problems. That is why we made a liberal team with two people who couldn’t differ more in style, but also couldn’t agree more on the fact that the European Union is not performing well and needs deep and structural reform. Olli Rehn put it this way at our electoral meeting, “We are both reformers in our heads and in our hearts. I’ve learned in life that the captains of a team can never win the game by themselves. Instead it is crucial to have the whole team working towards the same common goal. That is why we have come together, like Simon and Garfunkel, to build a bridge over troubled waters.”
Olli used a light-hearted metaphor, but we all know that if anyone is serious about getting out of the troubled waters the European economy is in, it is him. As commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, he pushed for coherent reforms in all euro countries. He did not only go as far as he was legally allowed to, he also forced the council to move the union’s boundaries because they were too narrow to tackle the crisis properly. I can strongly relate to this idea of politics. Politics is not about following public opinion. It is about shaping public opinion and changing the course of the ship. That is what I tried to do as Belgian prime minister when introducing gay marriage and adoption or when cutting taxes and limiting the role of government in our lives. That is what I try to do as group leader: to maximise the role of a parliament that often struggles to assert real power.
Whether we did a good job, Olli and I, is up to the voters to decide. But what is certain is that we think our work is not done yet. On the contrary, we want to make clear that what is at stake is a reform of the EU that goes deeper and broader than ever before. [pullquote]We need to make it stronger, simpler and more democratic. We need to give it the tools to tackle global challenges such as the economic crisis, global warming and international terrorism[/pullquote]. We need to give it the instruments to play a decisive role in our own back yard, from Belarus to Ukraine and even further. US diplomat Victoria Nuland was more than impolite in a recent secretly recorded private conversation about the EU’s role in Ukraine, but it is hardly surprising since we do not play a role of significance in one of our biggest neighbouring countries which is at a turning point in its history. A turning point that is about us, about our values and more importantly: a turning point that will affect us.
European Liberals are committed to building a stronger Europe to defend our common interests and values. We want a Europe with authority on the world stage. We want a Europe that boosts the economy and creates jobs. We want a Europe that is more transparent and accountable. A Europe that protects the safety and security of its citizens. A Europe of tolerance and equality, with strong civil rights and liberties. A Europe based on genuine democracy and the will of its citizens. A Europe that takes the lead in fighting climate change. A Europe that inspires trust, not fear, and one which promotes prosperity and unity, not division.
That is why we need a convention right after the elections, to reform the EU. To give it the legal competences in economic governance and strengthen democratic legitimacy and accountability. The EU and its institutions need more transparency and less bureaucracy. We must simplify EU rules and make them less burdensome. In short we should reform the EU so that we take away the root causes for its unpopularity. The only way to do that is to make it produce less paper work, roadmaps, recommendations and give it hard power instead so that it can tackle problems that transcend national borders. Nobody doubts the fact the EU has one of the finest civil services in the world: let us give them some serious work to do.