Graham Watson MEP
Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar
A local champion with an international reputation
Get Email Updates
Published on Friday 14th July 2006
This week was Parliament's last before the summer break. Playing no active role on any committee nowadays, I used the opportunity to slip away to central Europe to catch up on developments in our political family in three countries there.
Two hours in my Brussels office between arriving and leaving allowed me to greet a delegation of ministers from South East Asia. I think Parliament's administrators were quite pleased to find a group leader around; they also managed to dredge up a committee chairman and a deputy speaker. I used the occasion to send a clear message to the deputy Prime Minister and interior minister of Singapore that we deplore the way the government has personally bankrupted the opposition leader (through heavy judicial fines for the 'offence' of exercising free speech) and is now trying to bar his lawyers from future professional activity.
- * * *
In Vienna that evening I met Austrian Liberals who are very depressed about the chances for organised Liberalism in Austria. There is no Liberal party in Parliament; and hopes that Justice Minister Karen Gastinger might leave her party to establish one have just been dashed.
The story in Bratislava - capital of Slovakia and just an hour away from Vienna - is not much better. The Liberal party ANO, until recently part of the governing coalition, failed to scrape the 5% necessary to make it back into Parliament. Just 55% of Slovaks voted in the recent general election and one in every five voted for an extreme right wing party. The Social Democrats have teamed up with one of these parties to form a coalition, sending shivers down socialist spines in other EU countries. But at least here in Slovakia there is a small, recently formed party called the Free Forum which polled three and a half percent and whose leaders seem determined to battle on. In just four hours in Bratislava on Tuesday morning we met them and a number of others still flying the flag for Liberalism.
In Zagreb (Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning) the picture was much brighter. Three Croatian Liberal parties are represented in parliament. The main one, the People's Party, is impressively well organised and using every opportunity to provide a coherent opposition to Prime Minister Ivo Sanader's conservative government. I met Sanader, in addition to the Leaders of our three parties, and pledged our support for Croatia's membership of the EU; I also teased him by pointing out that opposition to further enlargement comes mainly from his own conservative and christian democratic sister parties in the European People's party.
- * * *
Back in an oppressively warm Brussels at 10 pm on Wednesday night (after an equally oppressively warm 48 hours away) I tackle the paperwork I need to clear before leaving Brussels on Thursday. At 0320 hours I get to bed.
- * * *
While I was away the Finnish Presidency of the EU was getting down to business. Their EU affairs minister told our Constitutional Affairs committee on Tuesday that the Presidency is starting bilateral and confidential consultations (known in euro jargon as 'confessionals') with other member states about the future of the EU Constitution. On the same day they broadcast live on the internet the legislative proceedings of the Council of Finance Ministers. Viewers were by all accounts dumbfounded by the use of EU jargon, but those who persisted will have seen and heard our finance ministers discussing the mandate of the European Central Bank and the economic work programme of the Finnish Presidency.
- * * *
I frequently applaud the European Court of Justice for being more reliable than other institutions in ensuring respect for the rules. But I am sad that this week they chose to exonerate from punishment former European Commissioner (and French Prime Minister) Edith Cresson. They found her guilty of favouritism - she paid her former dentist £2500 per month to be her Aids adviser - but turned down the request from the European Commission that she forfeit half or all of her pension rights..