At the weekend we met with old friends and new from our European sister parties for ALDE Congress, albeit via a Zoom link, as the Congress was online for the first time. It was my privilege to lead a diverse Lib Dem delegation of around 40, which in addition to the official categories for diversity, included several UK nationals resident in the EU and a few EU citizens resident in the UK.
Ahead of the Congress we had met to propose amendments and again to discuss the amendments tabled by other delegations. These are negotiated in the “Working Groups”, which usually take place onsite at the beginning of Congress. Online they were held several days in advance of Congress and a high proportion of delegates were unavailable. Some were unaware that this was the real forum for debate. The procedure is not unlike the European Parliament Committee stage where the political groups negotiate compromise amendments. At the final plenary voting session there is no debate and delegations work to voting lists.
The Working Groups did not go to plan, as the scheduled sessions of two and a half hours each ran to 6 and 5 hours respectively. Even delegates who started the sessions were often not there by the end. I was sat with original text on one screen, amendments on another, proceedings on my iPad, delegation WhatsApp and the voting platform both on my iPhone plus a print-out of our voting line.
The four Resolutions that we were entirely opposed to all fell or were withdrawn. One was a detailed political programme resembling an election manifesto. Our colleagues from the Netherlands (D66) proposed to delete the entire motion on the grounds that it was not appropriate to replace our entire political programme via a Congress motion from one or two delegations. We would have taken a similar view if such had appeared at our Federal Conference. Another was a resolution that would have made ALDE a party of individual members, rather than of national political parties. This was contrary to EU funding rules and systems. A third called for a European Army and the fourth called for health to become largely an EU competence; causing us real difficulties over the NHS when we re-join the EU. Don’t worry! These all fell.
We also faced a couple of resolutions where we had fundamental problems, but they were not beyond saving with some radical amendment. One was on LGBT+ rights and religion. I delegated David Chalmers and Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett to deal with the issue. With skilful rewording they turned the text away from finger pointing at particular religions to one based on principle. The negotiations with the movers were also not straightforward. David and Adrian did a great job.
The other called for the entire economy to be subject to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). I had drafted a compromise with Billy Kelleher MEP of Fianna Fail which was to use an expert panel to advise on which sectors should be added to ETS, but the movers stuck to their purist vision. I decided to play hard ball and advised our delegation to support the Swedes in removing the paragraph altogether. The deletion passed in the Working Group but had the effect of shaking the movers to accept the compromise, very late in the day, at the final vote. I was too slow typing “abstain” into the WhatsApp group but the deletion fell by one vote anyway and my compromise text sailed through.
Urgency resolutions were discussed, amended and passed during the Congress itself on Belarus, Ukraine/Crimea, antisemitism, land expropriation in South Africa and the Northern Ireland Protocol. Our delegates, including Joyce Onstad, Markus Gehring and Hannah Bettsworth made some telling interventions to improve the texts.
We were also able to tune into debates on the ALDE Facebook Page and submit questions to panellists. The main debate was on economic recovery post COVID under the title of Responsible and Smart Spending. There was a consensus on 1) investment in technology, infrastructure and skills; 2) investment in the green economy; 3) tourism recovery. This would need continued deficits in the short to medium term, but budgets should be returning to balance by the middle of the decade. The panellists were all former MEP colleagues from France, Spain, Germany and Denmark and the latter, Morten Løkkegaard ended by urging the EU to get its act together with the US to approach China with a clear set of rules and to resist a retreat from free trade.
The other debate was on Rule of law in the EU, with particular reference to Hungary and Poland where their governments have been flouting European values, with attempts at state capture, suppression of free press and homophobic legislation. Commissioner Jourova assured us that the EU is taking action, even if the judicial process is slow. The debate also ranged on to COVID lockdowns and the question of an appropriate liberal response. Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel said the measures should be short-lived and Alexander Lambsdorff that they should only be implemented after a proper democratic debate.
Earlier in the week we had interviewed both candidates for the election of Treasurer. Jasmina Mrso of Bosnia-Hercegovina gave an inspirational performance in a political context but David Burke, the Irish candidate demonstrated the specific skills required for the post. David was elected but I expect Jasmina to try again another year. The Bureau election was uncontested, with the three incumbents all re-elected. The election for Bureau takes place in halves and our own Sal Brinton was not up this year.
Overall, we can be pleased that none of our red lines were crossed. Most of our delegates pitched in at some point to help improve the resolutions. The WhatsApp group was vital in allowing discussion within the delegation and particular thanks to Sal and former FIRC Chair Robert Woodthorpe Browne for their numerous explanatory comments. I must also thank Mark Valladares, a veteran of the Financial Advisory Committee and Returning Officer for his technical clarifications to the delegation. The online format certainly allowed for the participation of delegates who would otherwise be unable to travel, but the vital opportunity of working the room to persuade other delegations was absent. This is a serious flaw, but we got away with it this time. My thanks go to a delegation who were totally engaged and showed real team spirit and particularly to vice chair Ruth Coleman-Taylor for her wise interventions.
And finally, I must thank our International Officer, Isabelle Pucher, whose hard work against the clock managing our internal communications and ensuring that the delegation had the detailed information needed to convert our views into accurate votes, made my job as delegation leader so much easier.
* Phil Bennion is the Chair of the Party’s Federal International Relations Committee and former MEP for the West Midlands.