One party for all of Europe? Libertas debuts in EU Parliament election

The new party is fielding 600 candidates in two dozen countries. Will EU reform resonate with recession-weary voters?

Petr Josek/Reuters
Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus (l.) greets the Irish founder and leader of the pan-European Libertas party Declan Ganley at Prague Castle last month.

In Sweden, there's the Pirate Party advocating free Internet for all. The Netherlands has the anti-Islamist Party for Freedom (PVV), and Germany, the Violets Party (Die Violetten), which believes that politics should be more holistic and embrace nature.

Voters speaking 23 languages throughout 27 countries have diverse choices in the forthcoming European Union elections rolling through June 4 to 7. But one party, Libertas, is arguing that it can appeal across borders and language divides.

Led by Irish millionaire businessman Declan Ganley, Libertas says it has 600 candidates contesting the election in two dozen countries.

The group was formed to oppose the Lisbon Treaty, which sought to streamline the EU's decisionmaking process, but, according to Libertas, gave too much power to unelected officials.

After successfully opposing the Irish referendum, it registered as a political party and is campaigning for political and bureaucratic reform of EU institutions.

"Many of the core themes of the Lisbon Treaty debate were around openness, accountability, and transparency," says Mr. Ganley. Although Libertas was against the Lisbon Treaty, he maintains it is a pro-European party.

"I believe in a successful EU, but it needs a solid foundation of democracy and transparency in its lawmaking and decisionmaking process," he says, adding that the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty reflects a Europewide dissatisfaction with EU institutions, which can be harnessed in the form of votes for Libertas.

But Helen Wallace, centennial professor in the European Institute at the London School of Economics, says that while there is space for a transnational party, Libertas's platform of EU reform will not appeal to the broader constituency.

"In European elections, people tend to vote on national rather than European issues. Only a small proportion have a broadly European perspective when they vote," she says.

Recession, not EU reform, is top of mind

Ireland faces another referendum on the Lisbon Treaty later this year, but most of Europe has left the issue behind, says Edward Moxon-Browne, professor of European integration at the University of Limerick.

"The economic recession is uppermost in people's minds now, not EU reform," he says. "To be fair to Libertas, I think that most of the issues that it raises about the EU are of concern to voters, but they are not a priority."

This was illustrated in a recent Eurobarometer poll that found voters placing more importance in subjects relating to their daily life, such as unemployment (57 percent) and economic growth (52 percent), than on the jurisdiction and powers of European institutions (10 percent).

Libertas has suggested streamlining the vast number of regulations and laws that are passed in the European Parliament. It is proposing a "two-for-one" rule, so that for every law that politicians want to introduce, they have to produce two existing, unnecessary regulations for deletion. These new laws would be introduced for a fixed term, and any not reviewed during that term would automatically be deleted.

Only a pan-European party can institute this kind of change, says Ganley. "There are 736 MEPs [Members of European Parliament] in the Parliament, but the biggest national party can only have about 20 MEPs. You just can't get anything done," he says.

An alliance or a true political party?

Within the European Parliament, national parties form broad-based political groups, such as the Party of European Socialists and the center-right European People's Party-European Democrats.

"National political parties do resonate across different countries, and the vast majority of votes are taken on the basis of these groupings," says Professor Wallace.

At present, Libertas is more like one of these alliances than a unified political party, because it had to quickly cobble together candidates from differing viewpoints, says Hugo Brady, research fellow with the London-based Centre of European Reform.

"Some are federalists, some are euroskeptics. It's difficult to find common ground between them," he says, pointing out how the Identity, Sovereignty, and Tradition Group, a European Parliament group of hard-right nationalist parties, fell apart because the only thing they had in common was dislike of the EU.

"They had no policy platform after that. You have to ask if a similar thing would happen to Libertas. I suspect strongly that it would," he says.

Key issue: voter turnout

Libertas has boldly targeted winning 100 seats, but only if voter turnout is high. That appears unlikely, according to figures from the European Parliament: Earlier this year, only 34 percent of possible voters surveyed across the EU said they would vote in the June elections.

Declan Ganley is running in the tight constituency of Ireland North-West and received just 9 percent support in two recent Irish Times/TNS MRBI polls. He would need to double this to have a chance of winning one of the three seats.

"The election of Ganley is critical, because only he seems to have the master plan for taking Libertas to the next level if they have electoral success," says Mr. Brady.

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