Hard times ahead for European liberals and Guy Verhofstadt in particular

  • Guido Westerwelle, the German liberal recently booted from the national political scene, is eyeing the leadership of the European liberals.
  • Guy Verhofstadt prepares his counter-offensive. He’s courting the support of Benelux liberals.
  • Either way, come the European elections, someone’s getting hurt.

Things are getting rough for the European liberal family. This was reflected on the national level last Sunday when the FDP, the German liberal party, suffered a stinging defeat. The FDP didn’t even receive the 5% of votes required for a return to the Bundestag. This unpleasant turn of events seems to be a harbinger of things to come for the May European elections.

The result is that hard days are ahead for Guy Verhofstadt. Our former prime minister, who technically presides over the European parliament ADLE group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group) where eleven “democrat” European deputies also serve, is the leader of the European liberals. Who will be left standing after the European elections?

In Verhofstadt’s view, the FDP’s loss presents a real danger. There are two ”official” challengers: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish NATO secretary general and Ollie Rehn, the Finnish vice president of the European Commission for economic and monetary affairs. The displacement of the FDP will add a third challenger and heavy hitter: Guido Westerwelle, the outgoing German minister of foreign affairs.

Had the FDP been successful in the elections, Guido Westerwelle may have stayed on in the German government. Now however, just like the other officials of the defeated party, he has no other prospect. So he will leave the national scene to present himself in the European elections and start a new career. His standing in last Sunday’s election will give the FDP four European deputies versus the twelve they have now. He only needed over 3% to stay in the game.

The European parliament ADLE group has not yet met this week. FDP attacks against Guy Verhofstadt are already lighting up social media. He’s being accused of the debacle in Germany caused by his federalist obsessions and for constantly calling for a pooling of the European debt or Eurobonds, a dirty word outside of Germany.

Something needed to be done! Guy Verhofstadt has apparently decided to announce his candidacy as he becomes leader of the political family. As of next month, he will be able to go public, empowered by the support he has now negotiated with the Dutch and Luxembourg liberals (he is assured of the support of the Open-VLD and the MR). The mutual admiration between him and the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte should be a valuable asset.

Verhofstadt could rightfully claim that he’s the only one who can preserve the cohesion of the ADLE group, then work to expand his “base”. In any case, some among the eleven “democrats” in the group have already hinted that they would not stay on if Westerwelle did become president.

The liberal leader will need to direct a transnational campaign for the European elections. He will also be the natural party family candidate to succeed José Manuel Barroso on the Commission.

Leading a transnational campaign? It certainly won’t be a walk in the park! The British liberal-democrats, another powerful constituency in the party family, are expecting a very low voter turnout that might result in six European deputies instead of twelve. Right now, there are five Italian European deputies in the ADLE. Their party, Italy of Values, has foundered. No one is venturing to guess which other Italians will replace them.

Elsewhere, such as in the Netherlands (VVD) or in Sweden, power has worn out liberal parties and may weaken their representation.

A glimmer of hope, however, flickers in France in the form of an alliance between François Bayrou’s Modem and Jean-Louis Borloo’s UDI parties. Together, these could swell the ADLE group’s ranks.

Verhofstadt is already rubbing his hands with glee. These French centrists are among his most ardent supporters.

MAROUN LABAKI

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