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This op-ed, written by the ALDE Group leader Guy Verhofstadt, was originally published in the Parliament Magazine.
The upcoming elections are an opportunity for Europe’s citizens to take a stand against illiberalism and to vote for a Europe they want to see, writes Guy Verhofstadt.
In less than four weeks’ time, millions of Europeans will head to the ballot box to select the 751 Members of the European Parliament for its next five-year mandate.
This month’s Eurobarometer study suggests that one in three people do not plan to vote. If you do not care who represents you in Brussels, or think that it doesn’t matter, perhaps it is about time you should.
If you think your vote will never count - this time it will. Working with ministers from Member State governments in the European Council, MEPs are jointly responsible for shaping and adopting laws that affect all aspects of our lives.
These range from the quality of the air we breathe, workplace rights such as minimum maternity leave, to the EU’s trade policy, our migration and asylum policies and consumer rights.
Increasingly, Parliament is playing a more prominent role in shaping these polices and contributing to national debates on the future of the European Union.
I am not complacent about the challenges we face, both at an individual level and as a continent, but I firmly believe that - although it needs reform - the EU has been a force for good.
Therefore, it is time for the silent majority, who also believe this, to stand up and be counted by voting; they should be in no doubt that those who believe in the lies of the populists and nationalists will certainly do so.
Young people in particular, who too often are reluctant to vote, must take the opportunity to make their voices heard.
The outcome of the Brexit referendum has shown that EU membership is not a one-way street.
Although most of us take democracy for granted, it is increasingly under threat, both in principle and in practice.
Those that seek to export their brand of illiberalism are now consolidating ahead of this year’s elections, in the hope of exporting their divisive policies on migration and restricting individual freedoms to other parts of Europe.
Guided by Steve Bannon, Europe’s pro-Russian, the illiberal fringe is set to make gains at European level.
“Although most of us take democracy for granted, it is increasingly under threat, both in principle and in practice”
The Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has worked with the Danish People’s Party, Marine Le Pen, Austria’s Freedom Party and others to assemble a new far-right coalition in the European Parliament.
It is conceivable that a large contingent of the United Kingdom’s MEPs from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will join them.
These parties seek to pit European against European, sowing the seeds of division in our societies.
Perhaps more worryingly, they aim to dismantle all the progress we have achieved in the EU.
The consequences of their success could see Parliament - and thus the EU - paralysed.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that this election could determine the future of the EU.
All citizens will face a clear choice about what kind of Europe they want to live in; a return to Europe’s dark nationalist past, or a more unified, tolerant and democratic union of nations.
As both a Liberal and Democrat, I am driven by the desire to enhance individual rights and freedoms, not to see them taken away.
To achieve this, we will need a total upheaval of the political landscape in Europe.
The time may be right; a recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations suggests, that for the first time, the grip of two old parties, the EPP and the S&D, on European politics is coming to an end.
The study predicts that they will lose their majority in the Parliament for the first time, slipping to 43 percent of seats.
“All citizens will face a clear choice about what kind of Europe they want to live in; a return to Europe’s dark nationalist past, or a more unified, tolerant and democratic union of nations”
Therefore, there is an opportunity for a new movement, one that is willing and capable of renewing Europe, to take the driving seat in setting the agenda of the next Parliament.
In the age of Trump, Brexit and Putin, pro-European forces in the centre cannot afford to remain fragmented, competing with each other rather than joining forces.
The European parliamentary election in May 2019 is an opportunity to shake up the landscape and create new alliances for pro-European parties.
We must make a new, joint proposition to voters; a progressive movement for European renewal, beyond the stale arguments of the traditional right and left.
This agenda would offer an EU that is stronger, more representative of citizens’ wishes and more capable of responding to challenges in today’s world.
It would be a Europe based on solidarity and protection for the vulnerable; that defends and strengthens equality, pluralism, rights and freedoms.
Most of all, it would be a Europe that is a community of values and a political union.
A great shake-up of the European political landscape would provide voters with clear choices between different political views and it can start in the Parliament after the elections in May.
It would undoubtedly make Europe stronger.
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