Report of LI Congress Rotterdam April 2014
By Mark Smulian
Liberal International's 59th congress suffered perhaps from a rather odd choice of timing - a congress in Europe held only weeks before most of the continent would be caught up in European Parliament elections.
This led to a rather select attendance - there appeared to be plenty of people present but many were from the host party, the VVD.
That said, delegates attended from as far afield as Chile, Mongolia, DR Congo and Mexico.
As with a Liberal Democrat assembly, there is a programme off formal business but much of the event's value comes simply from the opportunity to meet other liberals - in the case of congress from across the world.
In quick succession, for example, I met a man forming a new political party in Egypt, a Georgian veteran of a Soviet gulag and the head of think tank which is now one of the few organised liberal presences in Italy.
The congress marked the retirement as LI president of the VVD's Hans van Baalen after five years in office and the arrival of Andorra's Juli Minoves, whose inaugural speech noted his wish to reinforce LI's work on human rights, in particular.
Uncontested elections to the LI bureau saw the Liberal Democrats Baroness Falkner become a vice-president, alongside Dr Minoves, Mr van Baalen, new deputy president Helen Zille, of South Africa's Democratic Alliance and vice-presidents Dzhevdet Chakarov (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Bulgaria); Markus Loning (FDP, Germany), Kasit Piromya (Democrat Party, Thailand) and Cecilia Wikstrom (Folkspartiet, Sweden),
Lib Dem international relations committee chair Robert Woodthorpe Browne continued as a joint treasurer, joined by Shih-chung Liu (DPP, Taiwan).
The congress featured greater interactivity than before thanks to the work of the new Congress Advisory Committee, which held several virtual meetings to improve the opportunities for delegate to be involved in the proceedings.
Lib Dem international officer Ian Gill was among the committee's members and also organised two fringe meetings - a relatively new part of the congress.
The first was on the Africa Liberal Network, with which the Liberal Democrats are closely connected, and featured contributions from Olivier Kamitatu Etsu (ARC party, DR Congo), Ceilou Dalein Dialo (UFDG party, Guinea), Gomolemo Motewaledi (Botswana Movement for Democracy) and Baroness Falkner.
They emphasised that although outright dictatorships are now rare in Africa, democracy is fragile in many countries and dominated where it exists by non-ideological parties based on ethnic or geographical interests.
The most important development through was the string economic growth now being seen across much of Africa.
Our own experience in coalition formed part of the second fringe on Liberal in Coalition: Happy Marriage or Bad Romance, again featuring Baroness Falkner, with Sigmundur David Gunnlausson (prime minister of Iceland), Tamara van Ark (VDD) and Khatuna Samnidze (Republican Party of Georgia).
This session saw the launch of a booklet on Liberal in Coalition: tips and advice before, during and after government, edited by Peter Lesniak of the Liberal Democrat international office. It draws on experience from mainly European countries of how to manage the coalition process and many will no doubt wish it had been available in 2010. The booklet is available here.
LIBG president Sir Nick Harvey addressed a congress session in his role as a former defence minister on whether European countries should be more willing to pool and share their military capabilities. His speech will appear elsewhere on this site shortly.
Normally there are several resolutions on other topics but this time only three. A discussion was held on Ukraine but there was no resolution given how fast the situation there was developing.
The UK delegation successfully backed the Centrepartiet of Sweden against attempts by the VVD to water down recognition of the contribution of man-made carbon emissions to climate change in its resolution on securing a new climate regime.
Resolutions were agreed without significant amendments on stronger protection of human rights in the context of mega sporting events, from the International Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth, and on preventing and combating violence against women through the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, from the International Network of Liberal Women.
Every congress sees some new parties admitted to LI and a few leave, the latter in most cases for having failed to pay their affiliation fees for two years or more.
Two this time were close to home. Ireland's Fianna Fail was granted observer status. As Mr Gill noted, a decade or so ago an application for Fianna Fail would have been laughed out of the congress and he would have been unable to credit the party's presence among liberals. It had though, he said, undergone radical change and was now, for example, leading the campaign for same sex marriage in Ireland.
For reasons left unexplained, the Isle of Man's Liberal Vannin Party resigned from LI.
New full members admitted were: Botswana Movement for Democracy, Botswana; ARC, DR Congo; Free Egyptians Party, Egypt; UDFG, and UFR, Guinea; SLS, Kosovo; Future Movement, Lebanon; and Independent Liberal Party, Nicaragua.
Of these only the last proved controversial because of its support for one of the world's most restricted abortion laws, and the British delegation abstained on its acceptance.
Observer status, in addition to Fianna Fail, was accorded to IDS-IDD, Croatia; LRP, Moldova; and LPCG, Montenegro.