In most member states of the European Union, Liberal parties are descended from secular or dissenting parties with a strong base among the professional classes opposed to the influence of the Church, conservative forces and landed interests. Liberals were, broadly speaking, radical, progressive, republican, and often closely identified with agrarian reform. However, the introduction of universal suffrage and the rise of Socialist or Labour parties dislodged the Liberals from their traditional position. In some countries this pushed Liberals to the right, in others (including the United Kingdom) to the left. This fundamental difference is still discernible among the parties now linked to their European political party – the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR).
At no time since the second world war have the Liberals and their allies come close to rivalling either the Socialists on the left or the Christian Democrats or Conservatives on the centre-right, in terms of electoral support in individual European countries holding democratic elections. However, in several countries they have not infrequently held the balance of power in coalitions, notably in Germany and the Netherlands. Despite their strength as an indispensable component in the formation of certain governments, relatively few prominent Liberals have held high-office in European politics, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German foreign minister from 1974 to 1992, being a notable exception. (French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, although he became associated with the Liberals, was elected in effect as a conservative candidate in 1974). Liberals can boast two of the more successful Presidents of the directly-elected European Parliament (out of 13 office-holders to date) – Simone Veil (1979-82) and Pat Cox (2002-04) – although the first was elected to the Parliament on a joint list with the centre-right and the latter as an independent. Equally, they account for two of the more obscure Presidents of the European Commission (out of 11 office-holders to date) – Jean Rey (1967-70) and Gaston Thorn (1981-85).
Liberals have a vigorous and long-standing tradition of support for European integration, having voted solidly in favour of the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Rome in the 1950s. In the European Parliament, the Liberals form the third largest political group, known as the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). It currently commands 11.5 per cent of the Parliament’s membership, but is a long way behind the either of the main groups to its right or left. Until 1999, the British Liberal Democrats, the largest Liberal party in Europe, were handicapped by the first-past-the-post electoral system for the European Parliament: with 17 per cent of the vote nationally, they gained only two seats in June 1994, having won none at all since European elections were first held in 1979. The adoption of proportional representation in the United Kingdom has allowed the Liberals consistently to win ten or more seats at each of the last three European elections, both strengthening the Liberal group in the Parliament and moving it somewhat to the left. One complicating factor has been the difficulty experienced by the German Free Democrats (FDP) in keeping above the five per cent national threshold for representation: they disappeared from the Parliament in June 1994 for ten years. The ALDE Group’s 84 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) come from no less than 28 national political parties in 20 member states, making it an unusually heterogeneous entity.
Traditionally the views of Liberals in the Parliament were, in many areas, indistinguishable from those of the many Christian Democrats, given their common commitment to closer institutional integration, completion of the single market, free trade and the Atlantic Alliance. However, in the last decade or so, as the EU’s policy reach has moved into new fields, some differences of emphasis have emerged. Liberals now tend to be significantly to the left of the mainstream centre-right on civil liberties issues, notably in the area of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), which have risen greatly in importance since 11 September 2001. The Liberals played a key part in preventing a Catholic fundamentalist, Rucco Buttiglione from becoming a European Commissioner in 2004, after their own candidate for the post of Commission President, Guy Verhofstadt, prime minister of Belgium, was rejected in favour of José Manuel Barroso, prime minister of Portugal. Interestingly, Barroso’s PSD (Social Democrat) party had left the ELDR to join the European People’s Party (EPP) in 1996, in a move which at the time suggested that the Liberals were being squeezed in the centre of European politics. In 2009, Verhofstadt became a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and leader of the ALDE Group, successfully using that position to delay Barroso’s confirmation by the Parliament for a second term as Commission President.
In recent years, the Liberals have sought to avoid ‘capture’ by either the Socialists to their left or the EPP to their right. Statistics compiled by Simon Hix and Sara Hagemann (on behalf of VoteWatch.com) show that whilst the Liberal group voted significantly more frequently with the EPP Group than with the Socialists in the 1994-99 parliamentary term, since then it has supported each of the other groups more or less evenly. It tends to vote with the centre-right more on economic, industrial, constitutional and foreign policy questions, and with the left more on environmental and gender equality issues, as well as civil liberties.
The ALDE and EPP Groups forged an alliance in 1999 to secure victory for their respective candidates for the post of President of the Parliament, when it came up for election at the beginning and half-way point of that five-year Parliament, but this deal did not spill over into cooperation on policy and was not renewed. Since 2004, the EPP-Socialist ‘duopoly’ of control over the post of president, rotating between the two groups, has been restored. The Liberals have preferred to avoid any permanent alliance in the Parliament, exploiting instead their position as the ‘swing vote’ whenever the left and centre-right diverge. Statistics show the ALDE Group on the winning side of almost 90 per cent of roll-call votes in the Parliament’s plenary since July 2009.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry