Jacques Brel, one of the great Belgian performers, sang of his sense of despair and loss at the end of a relationship, of the desperation with which men would try to resuscitate a dying romance they had destroyed by their own failures. And, whilst our relationship with Europe is in danger of reaching a depressing end through the failures of others, the sense of despair and loss is not dissimilar for some of us.
And so, at the end of an ALDE Party Congress which saw the adoption of a manifesto for European Parliamentary elections we probably won’t be fighting, and the creation of a leadership team for a campaign that will pass us by, what have we learned?
- Europe, and even our liberal colleagues, are preparing to move on without us. Yes, they are sympathetic to our own desire to stay and engage, but there are some who, to be blunt, would rather have Brexit just happen than allow a protracted process and the resultant instability to distract from the serious business of reforming Europe, its economy and its institutions. We are pitied as much as we are respected for our history and our contribution in years past.
- ALDE is torn between those who are proud to be liberals and those who see the advantages of using words like “progressive” and “centrist”, the latter looking to build a bigger tent, a more effective (or powerful) political gathering, bringing in the likes of En Marche. That tension expresses itself as much through strategic considerations as opposed to policy ones - any pan-European manifesto is inevitably drafted as to allow a degree of designed flexibility of interpretation.
- The balance of power in the ALDE Party is shifting eastwards and southwards, with Bureau members now from Spain, Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. There are Liberal Prime Minsters in Estonia, Finland and Slovenia too, and Liberal Commissioners from Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic. The new Europe means a new ALDE Party.
- The apparent current weakness of the two historically powerful blocs in European politics - the Socialists and the Christian Democrats - offers the potential to change the dynamics of the Parliament, as both blocs lose support to the extremes at one end and, in moving to retain those voters, to the Greens and Liberals from their more moderate supporters. That leads to the emergence of co-operation between groups whose policy platforms have sufficient overlap.
The potential, both for growth of influence, and for a blurring of philosophy, is there, and in years gone by, Liberal Democrat’s would have been at the heart of the debate. That, sadly, is no longer the case.
And, if Brexit goes ahead, we will lose our right to vote or speak on future manifestos, or to vote for Spitzenkandidaten, leaving us amongst the Moldovans and Armenians in terms of status if not, perhaps, in terms of influence. It will not be the same, and the transition may be an uncomfortable one.
Ne me quitte pas, ALDE Party, ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas...