Spotlight European Integration – X – Hans van Baalen’s Legacy: Uniting liberals and Europe

ISSN: 2736-6065

Blog Post by Emil Kirjas, Founder of Kirjas Global, Vice President of Liberal International

Spotlight European Integration blogpost series tracks the progress of EU enlargement with a liberal perspective, looking at Europe’s future.

Only few days before the official start of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), the liberals across the world woke up to the sad news that Hans van Baalen, the leader of the European Liberal Democrats – ALDE Party and President of Honour of Liberal International, had passed away. He was seen a great champion of the European integration and unity, who sincerely believed that the entire southeast of Europe belongs in the European Union. The liberals in the Balkans have now duty to continue the legacy Hans van Baalen has left behind – to work decisively and tirelessly like him to deliver results that would guarantee the region equality in the Europe of the future.

Departure of the great supporter of SEE

Hans van Baalen’s early departure is an immense loss for the liberals and the political community across Europe. His absence will be genuinely felt in the weeks and the years to come. With his uncompromising spirit to fight for freedom and democracy and his conviction that Europe and liberals must unite, he would not miss an opportunity to stand up for the peoples that were oppressed, discriminated, side-lined and disadvantaged. He saw no small or big nations but equals who can contribute in their own particular way to the human prosperity. In each country and in each liberal party he saw an opportunity for cooperation and partnership towards a common good – making the world freer and more democratic. He did that with bold and clear vision.

This approach of Hans van Baalen was well noticed across the world. Southeast Europe was certainly not an exception. He frequently visited the Balkans, winning the hearts and minds of the liberals and democrats in the region with his open, direct and supportive messages.

When in Bulgaria the heir to the throne Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha returned to the nation to set up his own political party and win the elections, it was Hans van Baalen that ensured that the party was embraced by the liberal family. When Romania and Bulgaria were to join the European Union, it was Hans van Baalen that spoke up clearly against the opponents working to ensure these two Balkan nations become members. When Montenegro’s membership of NATO was on the agenda, it was Hans van Baalen who vigorously pushed for it. When the Macedonians were protesting against the authoritarian regime for former PM Gruevski, it was Hans van Baalen who flew couple of times to the country express direct support to the democratic movement. When the Bosnians were to defeat nationalist political forces at the elections, it was Hans van Baalen who returned to Sarajevo, where he served in the international peacekeepers in the 1990s, to empower them that the liberals are the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hans van Baalen worked tirelessly for the future of united Europe, seeing the Balkans as its integral part.

It is not surprise that perhaps the very last international event he attended as the ALDE leader, outside of Brussels, was exactly to Montenegro in February 2020 where he attended the LIBSEEN conference on a Liberal Approach to the EU Enlargement Policy. His message to the regional press was clear: “The EU needs to uphold strict criteria for membership, and these should not block the enlargement process but rather improve it for the Western Balkans countries – this is what liberals stand for “.

Future of Europe and the Balkans

Days after Hans van Baalen’s departure, on 9th May 2021, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) was launched in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This year-long exercise is aimed to give possibility to the citizens from across the EU to share their ideas and help shape the common European future. There will be series of debates and discussions with the aim of looking at the medium to long term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to its policies and institutions.

Just a few weeks ago, Hans would comment for the European Liberal Forum that the Conference should be “a real citizen’s convention”, not a forum of the “Brussels bubble”, where people should say what they think about the European integration. He saw EU’s position in the world as “vital”.

That vital geopolitical role of the EU has to accomplish is to ensure that the Western Balkan nations: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are integrated in the Union. The geopolitical competitors are increasingly active in the region. The Council of the EU yet again reaffirmed the European perspective of the whole region a day after the CoFoE launch, on 10th May 2021. Nonetheless, the citizens from these to-be EU members are not directly included in the deliberations on their future common Union.

ALDE, under Hans van Baalen, called for an inclusive approach towards the Western Balkans. The resolution on ALDE’s input to the CoFoE, adopted by the ALDE Virtual Congress in October 2020, states that the Conference “must engage widely with representatives of the Western Balkans, especially the next generations.”

The European Liberal Forum and ALDE have raised initiatives to fill the gaps where the Conference does not provide for formal participation. There are tools at hand that can be used. Ilhan Kyuchuk MEP, ALDE’s Vice President, reminds that the Conference as an unprecedented example of digital democracy offers enormous opportunities for such type of inclusive citizen participation from Western Balkan countries. One of the Conference co-chairs, the liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt confirmed that the Conference online platforms will not have geo-blocking and all inputs will be taken into consideration.

Seizing the opportunity

The ELF online panel on the Western Balkans and the Future of Europe concluded that it is important to reflect how can peace and lasting stability in the region be secured on the basis of human and minority rights, countering revisionist attacks on European norms and values.

The Conference on the Future of Europe provides a unique chance. It is now time to offer help to organise and coordinate a network of Balkan organisations to follow and produce input for the Conference. Liberals can lead the way in organising citizen’s events in the region, alongside those held in the member states.

ALDE will have its own events on the Future of Europe. We should be decisive. This is an opportunity that has to be seized, as act as Hans used to say: Let’s go forward together, let’s make Europe more liberal.

Published by the European Liberal Forum. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the European Liberal Forum.