Palermo, Friday 25 November 2011.
Dear President in waiting,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
One of my biggest weaknesses is that I absolutely hate farewells and goodbyes. I much prefer to tiptoe discreetly away, hide my regrets and come back later, in a different capacity and with a light heart. As this is not to be, I ask you to bear with me for a few more minutes.
As I hand over the ELDR presidency, it is fitting to make an inventory of the many strengths and the weaknesses of our party on this very day.
Among its strengths, the greatest one is certainly its staff: multinational, multilingual, talented, dedicated and fiercely loyal : one couldn’t wish for a better team. ELDR owns its office space, within walking distance of the European Parliament and that includes a meeting room for some 20 people. It offers not only a sense of belonging but could also serve as collateral, if that ever was needed. Highly unlikely for the moment because our finances are healthy and safe, but much will depend on the outcome of the next European elections. The size of our grant is indeed directly linked to the number of MEP’s elected on the lists of our member parties.
For it is an inescapable truth that ELDR’s strength depends on the strength of our member parties. ELDR is only as strong as they are and does weaken when they do.
The map of liberal Europe offers some stark contrasts. As this juncture, our political group in the EP has no members from Portugal, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, the Republic of Cyprus and Malta. Several more of our member parties have disappeared from their national Parliaments as well. Two more seem on the brink of suffering the same fate in days to come.
This obviously is a sorry state of affairs and it won’t be easy to correct, but we must continue to attempt it. We greatly increased our efforts towards party building with seminaries and trainings both “in theater” if I may say so and in Brussels. The truth however is that you cannot found nor build nor even sustain a political party from the outside. What you need for party building are teams of women and men “in loco”, “on the spot” with the will, the motivation and the ambition to build and sustain a political, in this case a liberal party.
My liberal heart bleeds when I watch liberal parties, and that includes my own, resign themselves to decline.
The explanations are many, some of them well founded, but resignation is certainly not the answer.
One of the most frequent explanations is that liberalism is unpopular and one is then told that this has been the case since the 19th century or, more recently, that the preset financial turmoil doesn’t exactly provide a good context for liberal proposals.
About two years ago ELDR and ELF, together with a team of academics decided to verify the validity of such allegations. We conducted a survey in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Austria to find out whether or not the basic tenets of liberalism (most of them to do with individual freedoms) are popular and, more critically, to what degree the public associates them with the self-avowed liberal parties.
We found that liberal ideas are indeed widely approved but that they are not spontaneously attributed to liberal parties. On one point however the respondents in Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland diverged from liberal orthodoxy. They trust the state more than the private sector to provide jobs and overall security.
A first tentative conclusion is that the weakness of liberalism in those countries is not due to the feeble degree of acceptance of liberal ideas, but is most probably linked to the weakness of the parties that are supposed to embody them.
These findings and the too many blind spots on the map of European liberalism literally lay out for us the work that needs to be done in the years to come.
It may very well be that economic liberalism is in dire need of reinvention and refoundation and to start doing that would certainly be most exciting. Imagine : ditching Ayn Rand, rediscovering Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill (although he calls himself a socialist in his autobiography) wouldn’t that be truly, really exciting?
Giving liberal humanism pride of place, reducing economics to what they are: a means, and not an end. Wouldn’t that be just as exciting?
But in the meanwhile we absolutely need to look after and care for “the little ones” as we say in Dutch, I mean in this case, the member parties.
We are nearing the half term of the European legislature. The new bureau and its President face the daunting, but exciting task to prepare the next European elections, and to prepare them well. Our whole future depends largely upon them.
If I can be of any help, you can count on me.
En attendant, I wish you well and thank you for all your support.
Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, MEP.