Opening speech by Hon. Sir Graham Watson, President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, on the occasion of the 6th CALD-ALDE Meeting held on 09 November 2013 at the Manila Hotel, Philippines.
Isara, Dina, Rainsy, thank you for a great welcome to this sixth CALD-ALDE meeting.
It’s great to be here among old friends and new. A privilege to be in country run by Liberals. And an honour to join you as you celebrate your first twenty years of co- operation.
I’ve had the pleasure to know many of you thoughout those twenty years. And, if I may say so, you don’t look a day older. OK, maybe my eyesight is no longer quite what it was. But I believe its the Liberal spirit which keeps us young.
Looking at our programme today I am impressed by the quality of those you have assembled to address us. I look forward to
their perspectives, their insights, their Liberal wisdom.
And I say that, fully aware that all our knowledge serves primarily to make us more cognisant of our ignorance.
Our discussions will cover a broad range of issues of common concern to Liberals. We will study security issues, we will talk about trade, we will look forward to ASEAN in 2015.
And since we will look forward to the shape of south east Asia in two years’ time, I hope you will allow me to say a few words about the possible shape of Europe two years from now.
I do so, not without hesitation. For, friends, it is not a pretty picture. When Europe’s annual portrait is painted, and the tubes are twisted and dried, I fear the oil on the canvass will show a sick man.
Europe is stuck in a crisis of sovereign debt and bank capitalisation which engulfed us in
2008 and which ails us still. We cling to the hope that we are past the critical stage of our illness. Our doctors tells us we need at least five more years to recover. But the economic ills we’ve endured have been the worst we’ve known since the deep recession of the 1920s; and their side effects may not yet show fully.
Remember what happened in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash. Democratic governments in Europe went down like ninepins as people looked for easy answers from populist politics. The fascist and communist parties elected into office then sowed hatred in society and wreaked havoc in our economy.
I say frankly, we are fortunate that in this crisis no EU democracy has been overturned by the ravages of recession and the hopelessness of high unemployment. And I hope I do not have to add the word ‘yet’.
In some countries over half our young people aged 18 to 24 are out of work. Today’s youth are the first in four generations who cannot expect a better life than that of their parents.
And parties which pander to the baser elements of human nature are having a field day. In France the extreme right polls 24%. In Britain an anti European and anti immigrant party took 26% in local elections this year. In Italy a party led by a comedian took a quarter of all votes cast in national elections. Elsewhere the picture also looks bleak.
Only in Germany, where the horrors of the nazis are so well taught, are the extremists still small. But even in Germany, in elections last month, our Liberal friends were knocked right out of the national parliament.
As our friends in Asia know from their recent history, economic hardship hits Liberals.
And I fear the worst is yet to come. In elections to the European Parliament next year the populist extremes could win a quarter of all the seats. And if that happens, then in 2015, in some country of the European Union, the past might just manage to overlap the future.
Of course we Liberals are redoubling our efforts. And with some success. In Norway and in Austria we’ve had encouraging results in national elections this year. In Luxembourg we look likely to lead the next government, with our friend Xavier Bettel as prime minister of a three party coalition.
With luck, universal unemployment and sickness insurance will continue to cushion the pain of those out of work. With luck, higher levels of education than in previous crises will prevent too many people voting for extremes. But many like me are holding their breath and hoping for the best.
We expect to have fewer Liberals in the European parliament next year than now. And we expect social unrest and the search for scapegoats to grow.
I do not seek to dampen the spirits of those here today. And as a Liberal I simply cannot be a pessimist. There are some hopeful signs for Europe. But I am not naive about the immediate reality of recession.
That is why we need your help. With little growth in the European economy we need more trade with those which are growing.
Our Free Trade Agreement with South Korea has been a huge success. We have initialed one with Singapore. We are talking to Japan and Malaysia; just this week we initialed a partnership and co-operation agreement with Thailand. It is not easy everywhere: with India it is like wading through deep mud, for Gandhian philosophy is no friend to trade. But greater trade with Asia can help Europe and help Asia too.
Of course we are looking elsewhere too. We have agreed a new deal with Canada; we have ambitious aims with America.
Because, as Adam Smith observed, trade is the fastest way to pull people out of poverty. It helps spread human understanding. And it secures peace, for the market is the only battlefield on which both sides win. But unless Europe can suppress its protectionists and trade its way back to health, the future is bleak.
For ASEAN, I hope, the prospects are brighter. Here, we see increasing regional co-operation. We see a number of established democracies. National leaders who are not democrats find their positions harder and harder to justify.
And so much of this is thanks to your work, to your struggle, to your sacrifices. To the Liberals who have worked day in, day out. The far sighted: those with community spirit.
People who ask themselves not ‘What’s in it for me …. People who put long term strengths and common concerns above immediate satisfaction and personal gain.
These are our Liberal heroes here. People like Ninoy Aquino, Kim Dae Jung, Martin Lee, Aung San Suu Kyi, and so many more.
They and their followers here today have laboured with the bricks of effort and the mortar of persistence to make Asian liberalism what it is today.
Friends, we salute you. And we look forward to our conference with you.
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This post was written by CALD