Ilhan Kyuchyuk: In May we have to decide what Europe we want to live in

The EU has to adapt to the changing reality

Photo: EP Ilhan Kyuchyuk

Nowadays, millions of people in Europe do not like the system which the political establishment imposed on them. There is a serious rift within the European society, and despite the fact that the recent Eurobarometer polls show rise in credibility to the EU in 2018, many people still do not believe that the EU and its institutions are capable of solving their problems. What we need is a closer tie between the European citizens and the EU institutions and to ALDE this is No.1 priority, says Ilhan Kyuchyuk, MEP and Vice-President of ALDE.

- Mr Kyuchyuk, what hopes do you nourish for the New Year which promises to be crucial for Europe?

- The year 2019 will be of crucial importance both for Europe and Bulgaria. The elections for the European Parliament, which are already looming large, will be a real battle between Europeanism, populism and extreme nationalism; between those who dream of “more Europe” and stand against isolationism and protectionism, a battle of freedom and tolerance against shut borders and the language of hate. This is what I pin my hopes on - I believe that all pro-European parties will be able to effectively oppose these policies, which aim to erode the foundation of Europe and undermine our common future.

- Some time ago you said that Brexit was a stupid and painful idea which cannot be implemented to the citizens' benefit. Do you believe that a new referendum is feasible?

- I do not backtrack on these words and the very fact that we are still in a Brexit deadlock means that they are well-grounded. In fact, currently there is a consensus in the European Union about the 'divorce' with Great Britain, and although initially PM Theresa May accepted it, the situation in the British Parliament, and especially in the Conservative party which is split on the issue, is different. It got to a point where ex-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson called it a “suicide belt”, and subsequently Theresa May had to face a non-confidence vote.

To all in Europe it was a very alarming signal. And if for the rest of us, within the European Union, the framework has been already outlined and Juncker, Tusk and other European leaders have said it flat, then in Great Britain they are still in the middle of two extremes and it would be very hard to predict how it will all end up. For this reason I do not rule out the possibility of a new referendum because many people have changed their minds in the face of the arising problems. Besides, many young people who couldn't cast their votes earlier have come of age now and can go to the polls. At first sight, the fact that they can exercise their right of vote on the issue that concerns their whole future life seems a logical solution. Regrettably, though, the political status quo in Great Britain is so complicated that, in my opinion, we would be likely to agree on a “no-deal” scenario, which for sure would have a serious impact on civil rights.

- At what stage is the implementation of the “You and Brexit” project?

- Currently there are over 250,000 Bulgarian citizens in Great Britain, including seasonal workers. The Bulgarian and Romanian citizens now have disadvantageous legal status, their rights are limited as many of them do not meet the requirement for five-year permanent residence because Romania and Bulgaria joined the Common Market later. Apart from that, many Bulgarians living in London fall into the so-called “hard to reach group”.

That is why we decided to create the www.youandbrexit.bg internet platform which aims at providing legal consultations and helpful information to the Bulgarians residing in the United Kingdom during the insecure Brexit period. We are trying to help them in guaranteeing their future resident status by providing readily available answers to their questions. I am glad to say that at the beginning of May 2018, Baroness Julie Smith quoted this project during the debate in the House of Lords as a good example of an initiative aimed at guaranteeing civil rights of the EU citizens. 

- In your opinion, what would it mean if the UK leaves the EU without a deal?

- It would be rational to assume that as 29 March 2019 is getting nearer, the government of Great Britain tilts towards a “no-deal” scenario. This is a dangerous prospect because the Leave supporters still put at stake the future of their country. I, as a Bulgarian and citizen of Europe, feel deeply concerned over such development, because Brexit may mean the exodus of Britain, according to Ms May's words, but along with that it also means sluggish growth and weaker economy in the UK. It means less funds for social aid, security, R&D programmes, etc., but it signifies weaker European Union as well, since it will lose such an important Member State.

Unfortunately, the whole process lacks what the Britons are famous for - pragmatism and predictable diplomacy. They entered into negotiations as if we were belligerent parties and not close partners for over 40 years.

- As a vice-president of ALDE, would you inform us in more detail about the new ideas which the European liberals are going to table during the EP election?

- In May 2019 we, the European citizens, will face a pivotal choice - we will have to decide what Europe we want to live in. The liberals want Europe to be a region where civil rights, supremacy of law and democracy are equally guaranteed to all. At the same time, the world around us is changing and issues new challenges every day. The EU has to adapt to the changing reality implementing profound institutional and political reforms to be able to become a capable and leading actor on the world arena. This explains why at the ALDE congress in Madrid in November 2018, more than a thousand delegates from all of Europe adopted the Liberal Manifesto for the EP election.

The main accents in it are put on international cooperation in the field of environment protection and towards the conclusion of the Paris Agreement, setting ambitious goals in encouraging scientific research and technological development, securing more investments for education in order to foster intelligent workforce for the future, developing new EU asylum and migration system based on long-term perspective, development of common European defence, countering hybrid threats, etc.

- What do the liberals think of the “spitzenkandidat” process and would you agree that the way the top positions in the EU are voted now should be altered?

- We in ALDE have opposed the current procedure for the election of the president of the European Commission. We believe that he or she should be elected by direct vote of the EU citizens on a transnational election ticket instead of being nominated by the biggest European political party. This would enhance the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions.

For this reason, ALDE will abstain from this race and will not support any of the runners from other parties. More than that - at our extraordinary congress in February, instead of a “spitzenkandidat” we will propose a team of liberal leaders for our campaign. We are convinced that we have strong leaders and this team of ours will be the best demonstration of the liberal vision for free, democratic, prosperous and united Europe.

- In your opinion, is Europe close to its citizens, does it give ear to their wishes and aspirations or did it distance itself too much from them?

- The truth is painful and if we want to fight off populism we have to admit it. Nowadays, millions of people in Europe do not like the system which the political establishment imposed on them. There is a serious rift within the European society, and despite the fact that the recent Eurobarometer polls show rise in credibility to the EU in 2018, many people still do not believe that the EU and its institutions are capable of solving their problems. What we need is a closer tie between the European citizens and the EU institutions and to ALDE this is No.1 priority. It is not by chance that the work on our political platform includes organising expert forums in different regions of Europe aimed at collecting inside information and navigating ideas. We have decided to give the floor to the European citizens, let them take an active part in preparing the manifesto and share their views on the development of Europe. We have to come down to the citizens and give ear to their voice because they are those who can initiate the reform so essential for the future of Europe.

- How would you explain the growing influence of the Eurosceptic parties and movements in many Member States?

- The surge of Euroscepticism is an alarming and negative trend observed throughout Europe. The core of this ideology is the policy of giving empty promises, but in reality this policy cannot yield any results.

I think that the battle which the political centre is waging against populists and Eurosceptic parties will go on within the EU. We can stand against their lies, telling the truth and rebuffing their attempts to mislead the European citizens. We must show that Europe can function to the benefit of its citizens and find compromises in order to take important decisions for its future. Otherwise, freedom and solidarity will be under fire from those who don't feel ashamed about throwing Europe 70 years back.

- The youth organisation of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (YMRF), of which you are the chairman, turned 20 years. What is so attractive about the liberal ideas to the young people?

- Starting from its very foundation, the YMRF has been a liberal movement that proclaims the basic human rights and freedoms as its political philosophy and denounces any form of discrimination. Twenty years is a long time and at the same time it is a short span. It can be considered long because it tells a lot about our history and experience, but it is also short because the future is ahead of us.

These years give us sufficient grounds to claim that we are part of the modern Bulgarian society, but they also make us realise the responsibility we bear before our friends and proponents, before our teachers and before Bulgaria. Today, we can proudly say that the YMRF is the biggest liberal youth organisation in Europe. Our work is highly praised and appreciated by the international liberal organisations. To us, it does not mean striking an elitist pose but only a chance to urge the young people to embrace the European agenda.

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Ilhan Kyuchyuk is a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament from the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe/ Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Having served as Vice-President of ALDE Party since 2015, he was re-elected on the position on 3 December 2017. Mr Kyuchyuk is a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the Delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries and the Arab Maghreb Union, as well as a substitute member of the Committee on Culture and Education, and of the Delegation for relations with the US. Since November 2014, Mr Kyuchyuk has been a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Liberal International, and since May 2015, he has been ambassador of the European Entrepreneurship Education Network. Between June 2013 and May 2014 he served as parliamentary secretary of the deputy prime minister of the Republic of Bulgaria in charge of the government's economic policy. He has been a member of the Youth Movement for Rights and Freedoms since 2005 and, in November 2012, he became its president. He is fluent in English, Russian and Turkish.

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