European liberals defy conventions (again) and bet on three names for the EU elections

European liberals defy conventions (again) and bet on three names for the EU elections

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a German politician who chairs the Bundestag's defence committee, will be joined by two sitting MEPs, Sandro Gozi and Valérie Hayer, in a so-called "Team Europe" that would represent the liberal family in the EU-wide poll, scheduled to take place between 6 and 9 June.

The unconventional move, officially unveiled during the party's kick-off event on Wednesday evening, is a direct challenge to the Spitzenkandidaten system under which each party is expected to nominate one lead candidate to preside over the bloc's most powerful institution: the European Commission.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) has chosen Ursula von der Leyen, the incumbent president, while the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) have picked Nicolas Schmit, the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights.

But the liberals are not playing ball, arguing the lack of transnational lists, a long-held ambition of pro-integration lawmakers that has met with firm resistance from member states, deprives the Spitzenkandidaten system of real meaning.

In 2019, liberals submitted seven names, including Margrethe Vestager, the bloc's competition chief, and Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium.

This time, they have trimmed things down to a triumvirate that personifies each of the three pillars that make up their political family: Strack-Zimmermann from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Gozi from the European Democratic Party (EDP) and Hayer from the non-attached, namely France's Renaissance.

Despite the egalitarian arrangement, Strack-Zimmermann, a 66-year-old defence expert who has earned a reputation for her outspoken criticism of Russia's war of aggression and her continued pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz to step up military supplies to Ukraine, is considered the campaign's main face and will likely take part in any televised debate alongside the other competing groups.

"Our message must be loud and clear: in this challenging time, Europe needs a strong liberal voice," Strack-Zimmermann told the audience, prompting applause.

"Let us renew Europe now, together. I'm looking forward to an optimistic, pro-European election campaign. I promise you: I will give it all that I have," she added.

Gozi then quipped the three were "real candidates," as they are all running for a seat in the European Parliament, as opposed to von der Leyen and Schmit, who are not. The Italian also took a swipe at the UK, for having lost "control" of irregular migration, a reference to the Brexit slogan, and at Hungary's Viktor Orbán, saying that "if you don't respect European values, you can forget about European money."

"We believe that each and every generation must fight its own battle to protect the rights that we have and to advance the cause of civil rights," Gozi said. "The moment we take them for granted, then, it's at that very moment that we start to lose them."

The three candidates will defend a 10-point manifesto that was finalised on Wednesday after negotiations between the different factions. The manifesto encapsulates the flagship priorities of liberalism, such as the reduction of red tape, the promotion of competitiveness and the protection of personal freedoms.

The meeting in Brussels featured a video message by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and an in-person speech by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who made a clear link between Europe's defence capabilities and its economic prosperity.

"European countries must make sure they are able to deter and defend themselves, also from the outside threats and attacks," Kallas told the crowd. "Freedom is not for free. We all pay for it. And we need to explain the costs to our voters."

Uncertain times for liberals

The kick-off event comes as Renew Europe, the group that hosts liberal MEPs in the European Parliament, faces an uncertain future amid a shifting political landscape and a crisis climate that appears to favour extreme-right viewpoints.

An exclusive pan-European Euronews poll conducted by Ipsos in 18 member states revealed this week that Renew Europe is projected to fall from 102 seats today to 85 seats in June. Under this projection, the group will retain its position as the hemicycle's third-largest formation but risks being surpassed by the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID), which is forecast to obtain 81 seats. ID is the most radical force on the right and encompasses the likes of National Rally (France), Alternative für Deutschland (Germany) and Flemish Interest (Belgium).

Renew Europe also faces the spectre of the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), which Euronews' Ipsos poll projects at 76 seats. But that number could further enlarge if ECR eventually welcomes the MEPs from Fidesz (Hungary).

Prime Minister Orbán has made no secret of moving his lawmakers into the ECR family after developing closer ties with Georgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d'Italia is set to become the largest delegation in the group. However, the Czech, Swedish and Finnish delegations of ECR have come against the idea of accepting Fidesz due to Orbán's close relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping. A decision is expected after the elections.

If Fidesz were to join ECR, Renew Europe would likely plunge from third to fifth place in the Parliament, dealing a huge blow to the centrist family, which prides itself on acting as "kingmakers" between right and left.

Making matters trickier for the liberals is the perception that the EPP, under Manfred Weber's leadership, is embracing talking points of the extreme right and normalising forces that were once considered to be fringe.

The concerns were the leitmotiv of the socialist congress in Rome and were echoed on Wednesday morning by Valérie Hayer, president of Renew Europe and one of the three lead candidates. Hayer said the inclusion of a Rwanda-style plan to outsource asylum applications in the EPP's manifesto was a "populist" choice to send a "signal to the far right." The French MEP, however, believes the ideological conversion might be a case of electioneering and will fade away once the campaign is over.

"What we saw, especially last year, was quite astonishing. In 2023, the rapprochement between the right and the extreme right was obvious," Hayer said during a breakfast with journalists, attended by Euronews.

"I'm talking about the year 2023 because, for me, it was a pivotal year where we saw Weber attempt to get closer to the far right. I have the impression that he understood that this risked weakening the unity and cohesion of his political group and that, as a result, he has somehow put the brakes on this strategy."

The French MEP stressed the importance of maintaining the "cordon sanitaire" that has so far kept pro-European parties (EPP, S&D, Renew and the Greens) separate from the Eurosceptic movement of ECR and the far-right ID. But the closer ties among conservatives cast doubt over the viability of such a barrier.

"We can work without ECR, we already do it today. We have EPP, S&D and Renew, and potentially the Greens, in the coalition," Hayer said. "But anyway, our line is clear: we don't work with the extremes, we don't give any responsibility to the extremes."

Still, her party is not immune to the shift in thinking: liberal politicians in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany have become increasingly sceptical about the Green Deal and the administrative burden imposed on farmers and industry. Last year, De Croo made headlines when he asked for a "green pause." The grievance is shared by the EPP, which has re-fashioned itself as the "farmers' party."

The liberals were keen to jump on the bandwagon during the campaign event in Brussels, as a video shown to the audience read: "Don't bite the hand of those who feed us."

This piece has been updated with more information.