The trip was organised by Sir Graham Watson, a veteran MEP who has represented South West England for 18 years, and who had been fortunate enough to secure a European subsidy in order to part-fund the trip for his constituents. With the trip taking place against the backdrop of ‘Eurogeddon’, many of the conversations amongst the attendees involved the precarious state of the Greek economy and the fate of the Euro.
During Sir Graham’s time in Europe he has served as leader of the Group of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (2002–2004), was the first leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe ALDE) (2004–2009), and has been the President of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party since 2011.
As a part of the trip I was able to participate in question and answer sessions with Ms Anneli Jäätteenmäki MEP, the former Finnish Prime Minister; Ms Gesine Meissner, a German Free Democratic Party MEP; Ms Anne-Christine Desnuelle, ALDE policy advisor on tourism and transport; and, of course, Sir Graham Watson, MEP for South West England. It made for an interesting and lively discussion.
On the topic of Greece, Ms Jäätteenmäki felt it was not a matter of if, but rather when Greece would leave the Eurozone. She felt that this would be both good and bad for the rest of the EU, but that it was ultimately a necessary price to pay in order to try to secure a stable future for the Eurozone. Ms Meissner went further, suggesting that if Greece left the Eurozone then the whole EU (not just the Eurozone) would be at risk of falling apart, and as such the EU must collectively do whatever is necessary to ensure that Greece remained in the Eurozone.
Ms Meissner was also questioned on the apparent hypocrisy of the EU actively asserting itself as a democratic force, whilst simultaneously encouraging undemocratic Governments in certain countries, such as the Technocrats governing Italy. She felt that the EU had to watch and influence Governments if their inability to govern themselves threatened the European ‘project’, concluding that technocratic governments were a necessary evil.
It would be interesting to know if she felt this way before the financial crisis, when arguably some European countries were poorly run and had the potential to damage the European economy with their reliance on debt. At the time no one seemed to find this a problem as the European economy was seeing consistent growth.
However, her most interesting and controversial comments came when talking about David Cameron’s decision to veto the European fiscal treaty in December. While there was much discussion in the UK as to whether this damaged the credibility of the UK, Ms Meissner was clear that she felt David Cameron, and as a result the UK, had lost credibility and standing within Europe.
She noted that the UK appeared selfish and revealed there had been talk in Germany, and within her political party, about possibly asking the UK to leave the EU. While such comments may please the right wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP, I believe it shows that the UK has lost its ability to act as a key player within the EU, and this has been further damaged by David Cameron’s inauspicious start to his relationship with François Hollande, the new President of France.
Finally, one of the overriding themes that shone through almost every conversation I had during the three days, be this with MEPs or their Parliamentary staff, was the importance of the ‘European project.’ Many felt that the EU acted as a successful peace project, and that while its remit had expanded well beyond the economic trading pact that it started as, it was critical that the EU was able to successfully cooperate internally in order to counter-balance the challenges of globalisation. This could be economic, with the rise of China, Brazil and India, along with the historic powers of America and Russia, but also extending to fighting transnational crime, energy security and climate change, all issues which have become supranational where governments must now cooperate in order to fend of the significant challenges all four subjects pose.
In all, it was a fascinating and highly enjoyable trip, particularly the opportunity to gain an insight into the thoughts of MEPs and Parliament staff from across the European nations. I look forward to continuing to engage with European politics.
Nathan (second from the right) poses with fellow Liberal Democrats and ALDE members.