Political compass points to the middle as Liberals enjoy la fête

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Series Details Vol.7, No.28, 12.7.01, p6
Publication Date 12/07/2001
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Date: 16/07/01

By Gareth Harding

THE Liberals celebrated 25 years as a European political grouping last month at a fête attended by the great and the good of the party. Now usually, anniversaries in Brussels are rather subdued affairs, with grey-suited politicos making boring speeches before rushing to the canapés and Champagne.

But the bash thrown by the European Liberal Democratic and Reform Party (ELDR) was more like a wedding ceremony. Solemn pledges for the future were made, loyal friends were honoured, gifts were handed out. Later, everyone retired to the opulent surroundings of the Palais d'Egmont to boogie the night away under the somewhat clumsy slogan: "Solid Identity, Trust for Change".

Liberals are usually satirised as worthy but dull people. Playwright Michael Frayn summed up what he described as the "ineffectual liberal's problem" when he wrote: "To be honest, what I feel really bad about is the fact that I don't feel worse."

You won't hear such mealy-mouthed meekness from the present bunch of Liberals, because after almost a century in the political wilderness they have become a force to be reckoned with on the European stage. For the first time ever the presidency of the EU is headed by a Liberal, wonder-boy Guy Verhofstadt.

Liberal Democrat peer Russell Johnston lords over the Council of Europe. Political chameleon and European Commission chief Romano Prodi shows up at pre-summit meetings of the ELDR. And by the end of the year there is likely to be a Liberal President of the European Parliament. Under a deal hammered out with the Christian Democrats after the last Euro-elections, Liberal leader Pat Cox is expected to get the backing of the assembly's largest political grouping - along with most of the Greens - when Nicole Fontaine stands down in December.

This would be good news for the Parliament because the former television presenter is a brilliant orator and a cunning political operator who is likely to take the issue of reform much more seriously than the pleasant, but powerless, Fontaine.

The Liberals can afford to punch above their weight in the European Parliament because, along with the Greens, they hold the balance of power. As London School of Economics academic Simon Hix has pointed out in his seminal study of Parliament voting behaviour: "The ELDR is pivotal in determining whether a centre-left or a centre-right coalition wins."

At their silver jubilee Verhofstadt boasted that this is "the most liberal Europe and most liberal world in history". At present, Belgium is the only EU country to have a leader hailing from the centre grouping. But when the candidate countries of central and eastern Europe join the Union, their ranks are likely to swell to four. The prime ministers of Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania are all Liberals and the party is in coalition in Slovakia. No wonder ELDR politicians are so enthusiastic about enlargement.

Of course, strictly by the numbers, Liberals languish way behind Christian and Social Democrats as Europe's third political force. But if they have lost the electoral battle in many countries, they have nevertheless won the battle of ideas.

During the bulk of the 20th century, Liberals were squeezed by the right and left, and were forced to adopt 'middle of the road' stances which were difficult to define but easy to ridicule. "If God had been a Liberal there wouldn't have been Ten Commandments, there would have been ten suggestions," quipped the novelist Malcolm Bradbury. Others put it more crudely. "If you stand in the middle of the road, you're likely to get run over," was a frequently-heard taunt.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the failure of the kind of crude free-market economics pursued by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan has ushered in a new era of liberalism. The fact that this is now pursued by centre-left and centre-right parties means little in a world in which old political labels cease to have any real meaning.

If you are in doubt about this, log onto www.politicalcompass.org and find out where you lie on the political spectrum. Also, check out where other famous politicians end up. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair turns out to be a right-wing authoritarian, while fellow countryman and leading Liberal Simon Hughes is revealed as a left-wing libertarian. So much for compasses helping you to find your way.

Feature on the European Liberal Democratic and Reform Party (ELDR).

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