Addressing a Liberal and Democrat conference today in Brussels, Guy Verhofstadt warned against retreating into a “nationalist air-raid shelter” and called for society to adapt to the new multi-polar world whilst turning the process of globalisation into a positive rather than negative concept, developing humane and sustainable migration policies and remaining true to the open society.

A copy of his full speech is attached.

Guy Verhofstadt speech at the Conference on the rise of extremism and populism in the European Union
30 March 2011

In more and more European countries we see the rise of extreme right and populist parties.

The National Front in France is challenging the establishment, by sky high poll ratings of its leader Marine Le Pen. In Finland, True Finns are likely to be the largest party after the elections in a few weeks. And these are not isolated cases – Slovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium.

As the “Economist” put it just a few weeks ago:

“The virus, it seems, is spreading!”

This evolution worries the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats because what the extremist and populist parties are standing for is exactly the opposite of what we believe in and what we are fighting for day after day in the European Union. 

Across Europe, Liberal parties follow different strategies in order to oppose extremist and populist parties. We trust that liberal parties will stand strong and firm on our shared liberal values. On these matters, the ALDE Group will be vigilant. We will judge the governments on their policies. We will not accept policies that end in racist or intolerant and that are targeted against minorities based on colour, religion, origin or sexual orientation. We will not hesitate to act if necessary.

We did so over the expulsion of Roma people from France.
We did so over the medial law in Hungary.

Perhaps more worrying is the tendency that more and more politicians from moderate or mainstream parties from all over Europe are starting to repeat the same populist discourse. Over the last year we have seen policies against minorities, a general radicalisation over religion and attacks against the open and multicultural society. We also see a return of the discourse on national identity.

For all moderate politicians there is a choice to make. Either we follow this populist discourse in the hope of countering it – a contradictory approach in so far as one cannot oppose extreme right and populist ideas by imitating them – or we show political spine and call “a spade, a spade”.

If the Constitution of Hungary was written on an iPad in Brussels, that does not make it a Constitution for the 21st Century that Hungary deserves.

If “True Finns” believe in isolationism and want to see the Finnish record of being “exemplary Europeans” scraped, then they are ‘Fake’ Finns.

If Marine Le Pen wants to re-erect border controls and introduce death penalty in France, than she is wrong!

It is by confronting not appeasing, by counteracting on details not following their generalisation that we can counter this phenomenon.

It is a fact that European citizens fear their welfare is declining. They fear the consequences of climate change. They fear that globalisation means that other continents are taking over and Europe will be left behind. The successful formula of extreme right and populist parties is that they feed and exploit these fears and propose a closed society instead.

We, Liberals and Democrats, are convinced this ideology of retreating into a nationalist air-raid shelter is the wrong answer to the current challenges.

Even worse, this approach will turn the challenges into more serious problems for our future.

What we need to do instead is to adapt our society to the new multi-polar world: 
– provide the answers to the current economic crisis, and make the process of globalisation something with positive benefit to people’s lives; 
– create a humane sustainable and balanced European migration policy;
– vigorously defend the open society.

I hope that this conference will tackle these pertinent questions and by sharing liberal experiences on counteracting populism and extremism we will be able to build a European rebuff for this phenomenon.