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Liberal Democrat Conference Overview

Submitted by on 14 Sep 2011 – 14:41

Sir Graham Watson MEPSir Graham Watson MEP, Editor Government Gazette

Autumn conference is the forum in which each political party comes together to reflect over the last twelve months and plan ahead. And whilst 2011 has certainly been an eventful year in the UK, Brussels has had its fair share of major events too, with the Liberal group in the Parliament at the forefront. MEPs look forward to conference as an opportunity to spread knowledge of what is happening in the European Parliament.

The dramatic events of the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Gulf states gave the European Union’s External Action Service an opportunity to support the progress of democracy where it flourishes. Whilst I am generally supportive of the EAS, and the work of its head, Baroness Ashton, it and national governments were slow to react to the domino style collapse of regimes in the Middle East and this meant there was no common message from Europe. Tunisia and Egypt still have much to do. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has left Libya with an incomplete government and a humanitarian crisis. The EU must react effectively to prevent an Iraq scenario.

Liberals in the European Parliament called for tougher, more immediate sanctions on regimes which use violence against their own people. Liberals were also critical of national governments and the Commission for failing to recognise groups such as the Libyan Transitional Council quickly enough or assist in legitimising groups who can provide freedom to citizens from the clutches of a dictatorship. With the national transitional council in office, we must now act fast to release funds previously blocked for Gaddafi and assist the Council in building a robust and liberal constitution.

Closer to home, the European Union’s five year tussle over its spending priorities took place. European Parliament Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt took the opportunity to release a pamphlet, with cross party support, calling on national governments to allow the EU to raise its own funds and end the political roadblock which occurs each time the Multi Annual Financial Framework (MAFF) is negotiated. Funds would come from set VAT contributions and a carbon tax. Unsurprisingly, this was met with a tirade of opposition from sceptics who see this as another attempt to federalise. Yet the proposals would not only prevent time being wasted by Member States and Parliamentarians haggling over who pays what, it would also provide a stable means of income for a level of government which is here to stay.

The ideological battle also raged over the draft 4.9% increase in spending and the Liberal calls for a freeze in real terms in the 2014-2020 period in order to help Member States out of their financial difficulties. With an institution that is debt free and spends 50 times less than the 27 nation states put together, a freeze in real terms is a credible option for nation states to agree on. Most countries understand, however, that as we continue to pool our resources at European level we gain major savings in areas such as defence procurement and telecoms. Alas, we must now wait for the horse trading between Member States to begin this autumn following a clear vote in Parliament for a 5% increase.

Turning to environmental issues we find an area where the Liberal group and UK Lib Dem MEPs in particular have been leading from the front, for example in tackling fish discards. My colleague Chris Davies has led a cross party campaign called ‘fish for the future’; calling on the Commission to ensure that fishing capacity is reduced whilst maintaining jobs in the industry. It would be a great shame if our chance to change the Common Fisheries Policy for the better was hijacked by vested interests whose campaigns would only provide short term gains whilst failing to deliver the long term strategy needed to protect our stocks.

On climate change, a long debate evolved over a call for the CO2 target to be increased to 30% by 2020. A key target, backed by big businesses, the coalition government and climate change campaigners, was rejected following a sabotage effort from Conservatives who claimed that we would damage the economy unless the same target applied around the globe.

In my own campaigning on preventing climate change, my proposal to dedicate 5% of the EU budget towards investing in renewable energy and in a European electricity supergrid, (a project outlined in 2009 by me and four other MEPs,) saw some success. Heavy lobbying of Commission President Barroso in a campaign that attracted Socialists and Conservatives alongside Liberals, achieved proposals to green the EU budget even if the state of public finances denied us the opportunity to solve our energy supply problems and creating an energy network that could run from Greece to Norway. Certainly as we head toward the expiry date of Kyoto, the next 12 months will prove crucial in reaching multilateral agreements to secure a global emissions reduction target. At home as part of government and in Brussels, Liberals will continue to champion this.

From promoting democracy abroad to fighting climate change and securing our future energy supplies, Liberals in the European Parliament and the Commission not only hold the balance of power on key votes, but are actively contributing to the debate on the future of Europe. 2012 will be a year when Europhobes will predict the end of the Euro and the subsequent collapse of the EU, and Europhiles will promote further integration as we prepare to welcome new members to the Union. As our challenges change and develop, the battle lines between progressives and conservatives remain eternal. Party conferences serve to remind us of this.