Building a Liberal Europe
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th November, 2010
When direct elections to the European Parliament were first introduced in 1979, not a single British Liberal was returned, as the first-past-the-post electoral system was still in place and Liberal support was too concentrated in pockets. But Graham Watson and Robin Teverson defied sceptics by winning two Euro-seats in the West Country in 1994, and with the introduction of the (fiendishly complex) d’Hondt method of proportional representation in 1999, the Liberal Democrat tally shot up to 10 (now 12). That has ensured not only that British Liberal Democrats have a strong voice in the European Parliament but also that they form the largest single national group within the European Liberal family. It was partly as a result of that that Graham Watson became leader of the third force in the Parliament, which he then set about ‘growing’, by wooing all sorts of parties and individuals (some more identifiably Liberal than others), until at its height, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), as the parliamentary group is called, had over 100 MEPs. This process did not occur without some concern, as Graham makes clear in his new book Building a Liberal Europe: The ALDE Project (John Harper, 20 pounds or 25 euros). Some of the core members of the European Liberal Democrat and Reformist Party (ELDR) around which ALDE coalesced had reservations about Graham’s strategy of ‘bigger is better’ and were incredulous when he embarked on his frankly unrealistic personal project to try to become President of the Parliament last year. Now no longer leader of ALDE (the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt succeeded him), Graham has instead had time to compile this survey of how the Liberal Euro-parliamentary group developed and the various political issues that members of the group pursued, individually or collectively. Because these are so numerous, and readers’ interests will vary, some pages of the book will be of more interest than others. Most of the British LibDem MEPs get a name-check at least and one is left in no doubt about how wide the author’s network both within and beyond the ALDE group has been. It’s a pity, though, that with the notable exception of a striking vignette of Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace and to a lesser extent Silvio Berlusconi, most characters in the book fail to come alive. Graham himself comes across as rather cold and calculating (for example, describing the way he wined and dined ‘expensively’ in Brussels his colleagues, in order to try to win their support), though as I know from more than 30 years of friendship with him, that is not a fair self-portrayal. For better or for worse, he is no Peter Mandelson either. While academics and Liberal Euro-enthusiasts such as me will find lots of interest in Building a Liberal Europe, those avid for gossip will be disappointed.