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Europe ALDE/ELDR European Parliament

Change the debate and win the elections

   Fri 01/11/2013


In the 2009 European Parliament elections, Liberals and Democrats retained
their position as the third largest group. The coming elections will be as
crucial for the liberal group as it is for Europe. In the last couple of
years, the narrative about the EU has changed fundamentally. A recent Pew
survey found that the favorability figures of the EU have fallen from
60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. For the first time, more Europeans think
negatively about the EU than positively. This is not a fact we can ignore
or, worse, blame on the voters or on ³misinformation² or some other
external factor. If we do that, it is not unthinkable that a collection of
nationalist, eurosceptic, anti-establishment and single-issue parties will
tip the balance in the EP, change the direction of the EU for the worse
and cause even more discontent.
Credit where credit is due: eurosceptics have feverishly sharpened and
updated their narrative in the last years and now stand to reap the
benefits. We, and I include myself, have at times been complacent,
believing that our classic narrative would be sufficient despite changing
circumstances. Instead of defending our ideas on how to fix Europe and the
urgency of it, too often we found ourselves defending the very idea of
Europe. And while that idea is very much worth defending, this may not
actually be the most effective defense. We should be asking ourselves:
shouldn¹t some of the people who are dissatisfied with the way Europe
currently works be voting for us? The fact of the matter is that liberals
have always been on the forefront of EU reform. It is us who want to make
our complex and intricate EU more accountable, democratic and transparent.
Of course the liberal manifesto contains many concrete proposals that will
tell the voters about our policy priorities for the coming term. Ambitious
the manifesto certainly is: we want to reform the common agricultural
policy to enable EU farmers to compete in a free global market, to meet
increasing global demand for food in an environmentally responsible way,
to direct funding for research in renewable energies, including
sustainable new generation bio-fuels, and to guarantee long-term food
supplies. We want businesses to benefit fully from the internal market so
that they can create jobs, rather than getting caught up in bureaucracy.
We have fought for a balance between security and freedom, voting for
anti-terrorist measures only if they are really effective and do not
undermine human rights. If it were up to us, we would end the EP's
wasteful, monthly travelling circus to Strasbourg.
But we'd be fooling ourselves if we believe that policy plans are enough
to win elections. Elections are not won on policy, but on narrative. Most
of our member parties cannot win elections with the exact same narrative
we have used for so long now. We should no longer let others force us to
be the defenders of the EU. In fact, any discussion with the premise 'for
or against Europe' is ludicrous: Europe is a continent and the existence
of the EU is a reality that is not up for debate. What we can decide, is
if we want Europe to be weak or strong. The only reason why the Œfor or
against Europe¹ frame keeps popping up, is because it plays into the hands
of some parties, because many journalists don't know any better, and
because we play along much too nicely.
Change of a political narrative comes through conscious, consistent and
clear repeating of the frame that most accurately describes reality as we
see it. She who determines what the debate is about, wins. Of course each
country and each party¹s situation is different, but as liberal family we
do have the power to shift the narrative if we work together.
How does the current Œfor or against Europe¹ frame work? Ask yourself the
following question: a politician who is against the EU, what is she for?
Her home country, obviously. Any voter will understand this.
Unfortunately, by accepting that frame, the voter will also accepts the
opposite: a politician in favor of the EU is working against her home
country. Simply by reinforcing the Œfor or against¹ frame, we strengthen
the eurosceptics. It forces liberals to point out some concrete advantages
of the EU, or to re-explain a historic imperative that simply does not
resonate in many places anymore, whether we like that it or not. Calling
our opponents nationalists or anti-European merely reinforces their frame
to our own detriment. Perhaps most importantly important: this non-debate
sucks all the oxygen away from the question this that is real: do we want
Europe to be strong or weak? Luckily, also in this framing, voters already
know which parties stand for which. This will work to our advantage.
We should be much more mindful of the words we choose to accept. For
example, do we defend the ³transfer of powers to Brussels²? This means
that countries currently have powers that they are about to lose if
³Europe² gets its way. Just because it this is nonsense does not mean it
is not convincing. Instead of letting us be forced into frames like that,
we should attack nationalist who want ³want to stand alone in the world²,
ask them how they will ³pay for their retreat from Europe², simply because
they are ³too immature to share responsibilities². Not only is this a very
different narrative, it also happens to be the truth.
As in all political families, there are some variations in the ideas of
our member parties on how to move Europe forward. I honestly believe
that these matter far less than we think they do, as they are mainly tied
to old and false frames. They certainly matter less now than they did in
the past. In essence, all liberals are reformers. We all want an EU that
is leaner, meaner, more transparent, logical, democratic and accountable.
We as drafting committee have tried to find a concept that summarizes this
shared ambition. Like any metaphor, its purpose is not to be the complete
and ultimate summary of our ideas; it is a tool that allow allows us to
break into the debate with and give a enough of a punch to actually make
an impact. We should not allow the campaign to be a match between ŒEurope
vs the home team¹. The question that is on the table is if voters want to
live a Europe that is weak or strong. Do they choose the complex,
unaccountable and often bureaucratic Europe that we have today, or do they
want to make it transparent and accountable? That is what we mean when we
say we want a simpler Europe. This is the narrative that allows us to tell
our compelling story. We want a Europe that focuses on our priorities:
jobs and security, and not waste most of its energy on fighting over
budgets. A simpler Europe is a stronger Europe.
Only a simpler and therefore stronger Europe will create jobs, enable long
term prosperity and earn back the confidence of the people. Our ambitious
manifesto, and our voting records that support it, show Liberals and
Democrats are not content with Europe as it is. Voters have three options:
keep the EU we have by voting for the big groups. Voice discontent by
choosing one of the new parties that want to tear down the EU. Or change
Europe for the better, by making the Liberals and Democrats stronger.