Eastern European background of Kallas seen as strength in Europe

Hanna-Hulda Reinkort
, foreign news editor
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Photo: Jaanus Lensment

As unveiled in October by former European Commission vice president Siim Kallas (67), he is running to lead the ALDE party uniting Europe's liberals and democrats. Currently campaigning for the post, he will need 488 votes at ALDE conference in Budapest, on November 21st. If picked, the man will lead some fifty parties over Europe. 

The election is seen as unpredictable. As Mr Kallas and his Dutch rival Hans van Baalen (55) face off, what matters most is if they are liked.

In Europe today, three political forces are more or less central mainstream – conservatives, social democrats and liberals. Mr Kallas would be tasked to greatly upgrade the liberal input. The idea for him to run was forwarded by Guy Verhofstadt, head of liberal faction at European parliament.

First, two things need to be distinguished. ALDE unites Europe’s liberal democratic parties including such as have no seat in European Parliament, and some are from nations outside the EU like Georgia and Kosovo. And then ALDE has its faction containing the liberal European Parliament deputies.

As pointed out by Annika Arras, campaign manager for Siim Kallas: «ALDE party president is like a party chairman in Estonia, and ALDE factions head like Riigikogu faction head – these need not be the same persons,» she said.

An aim set by Mr Kallas is for liberals to pocket 120 seats in European Parliament at 2019 elections, instead of the current 70 (out of 751). Unlike in Estonia, in Europe liberals are at the moment rather marginal.

As for Hans van Baalen, he sits at European parliament from 2009 and is thus active in European politics. Meanwhile, since last November Mr Kallas has rather been away. But they say he carries more of the political capita.

No assurance

The campaign touches ALDE member parties, and on individual level – no posters on parliament walls. «We talk to people and ask them, at the end of the day, if we have their support,» commented Ms Arras, adding the work is difficult as crossing various media spaces.

«The ALDE party role would be altogether different from former experience of Mr Kallas: he will be tasked with leading the entire liberal movement in Europe, and not a state. Thus time will tell if it fits him. This will not be a job broadly known in Estonia,» said, Antanas Guoga, a liberal MEP from Lithuania.

«The job takes much energy and input, and a desire to stand in Europe fir liberal ideas. The candidate who proves he can do it wins. The final debate in Budapest will be decisive,» said the Lithuanian.

A Swede running for ALDE vice president, Fredrick Federley, said that «Siim has energy and that does not depend on age at all.» After having decided to run, Mr Kallas called the Swede and, having talked it over, the latter opted to not run for president so as «not to dilute Nordic and Baltic votes.»

Vice president for ALDE and European parliament, Anneli Jäätteenmäki (Finland) suggested that the numbers heading to Budapest from European parliament will be low. «Thus, what will decide is votes of ordinary members in parties belonging to ALDE,» said the one-time Finnish prime minister.

Mr Guoga thinks it will be a tough vote as people vote on personal basis and «liberals are famous to make no deals.»

His strengths

Mr Federley thinks it important that ALDE not take the conservative path as is taken by many parties these days: «I know Siim will never turn into an anti-EU populist, therefore he has my support.»

Mr Guoga added the current president from Britain Graham Watson (59) was not strong enough. «We have lacked a strong political message to support parties in member states,» he observed.

Mr Federley envisions Mr Kallas to do a good job in economy. «In Europe, economic development is too slow, leading to social tensions. Were there more money in the system, it would be easier to handle migration crisis and joblessness,» he said. «Mr Kallas knows how to live under Soviet rule and what it meant for jobs and overall development of the state. This makes him a key person to ensure sustainable economic growth.»

Hans van Baalen, the other candidate, is no-one to be trifled with, possessing a broad communication network and a man widely known. He is active in European liberal networks and currently serves as ALDE vice president.

An addition to all of the above, people interviewed see strength in Mr Kallas not hailing from Benelux nations – as have been all earlier ALDE presidents.

Meanwhile, Mr Guoga claims Kaja Kallas – the daughter of Siim and a MEP – would have an easier job to win the elections as «a superstar here. If she’d run, she’d win,» said the Lithuanian stressing the competence of Ms Kallas in IT.

ALDE, short for Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party.

In European Parliament, ALDE is fourth largest with 70 seats out of 751.  

From Estonia, Reform and Centre belong to ALDE.

Liberal Democrats are currently in power in seven of the 28 members in EU: Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Slovenia, Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg.

Source: PM