It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the European Parliament in Brussels, and a group of students visiting from the University of Winchester is listening to a mild-mannered 66-year-old MEP named Catherine Bearder.
“I’m the last Liberal Democrat left in the European Parliament,” she tells the students with a touch of melancholy. “But I’m the lucky one, at least I’m still here.”
From her face, it seems Bearder is not entirely sure how lucky she is. The Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, considered by many to be the most influential British delegation in the previous term, was almost completely annihilated in last May’s European Parliament election. Their count of 12 MEPs dropped to just one.
It is the peculiarity of the UK’s electoral system that thrust Bearder, a largely unknown MEP, into this pivotal role. While most member states have one national party list, the UK votes in 12 individual constituencies, each with their own candidate list. Bearder found herself at the number one spot on the Liberals’ list in the UK’s Southeast region, the country’s largest, after Sharon Bowles decided not to stand for another term.
The 11 other sitting MEPs from other constituencies weren’t so lucky. The Liberal Democrats lost their Brussels heavyweights like Graham Watson, Andrew Duff and Ed McMillan-Scott. If the UK had national party lists like most other European countries, the one MEP returned to the Parliament would have likely been Watson, who now leads the pan-European liberal party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats.
Bearder recalls the bittersweet moment in May 2014 when she learned she had been re-elected. “I had us down as probably four coming back,” she says. She watched as, one by one, her colleagues were eliminated. For a moment it looked as if the party could be completely wiped out. And then late in the night Bearder got the call. She had just squeaked by with a victory, and would be the only one returning.
“It wasn’t survivor’s guilt that I felt,” she recalls. “It was huge relief, but also I was feeling desperately sorry to lose all those years of experience. And then it dawned on me – this is going to be a completely different job than I thought.”
“I had thought that when I came back I would concentrate on environment and human trafficking issues,” she says. “I realised, I’m going to have to change the office, to make sure we cover all the committees. Plus we were in government so they needed me to be flagging up to them what was happening. It was a bit terrifying really.”
No time for wildlife
Having long been involved in local politics in Oxfordshire, Bearder entered the European Parliament in 2009. During her first term she concentrated on her two pet issues – wildlife conservation and human trafficking. She is married to a zoologist and spent many years in Africa studying hyenas.
But now that Bearder is the sole representative of the Liberal Democrats in the EU institutions, she can no longer afford to dedicate herself to her pet projects.
“I thought I was going to come back and concentrate on the environment and trafficking, but that keeps getting pushed out of the way really,” she says. “That’s frustrating. All the local parties will want me to come and do the dinner circuit in the Autumn. And because there’s only one of me I have to cover the whole country. So it will pull me away from here I suspect.”
At the start of the new term in July 2014, Bearder inherited what was left of the Liberal Democrats infrastructure in Brussels. Parliamentary civil servant posts are doled out based on the size of national delegations, which means that 90% of Liberal British employees in the European Parliament got the axe last year. Those that are left are walking Bearder through the big issues. She now finds herself issuing press releases on every EU development even when she is not expert in the subject, from banking reform to migration to the FIFA scandal.
This has led to some tension between Bearder and the Liberal Democrat machine in Brussels. They want her to focus on the big issues, but she wants to spend more time on wildlife conservation.
“A lot of us are helping her out on a voluntary basis, not just her staff at the Parliament,” says one Liberal Democrat who works outside the Parliament in Brussels. “She’s only one person and she can’t do everything…but there are people who want her to focus more on the big issues.”
Bearder’s busy schedule is compounded by the fact that she was also elected as a qaestor, something akin to the ways and means committee in the Westminster parliament. She is the only British MEP in this bureau, which sets the rules and administrative procedure for the Parliament. This election came much to her own surprise, but with the plurality of the British delegation largely uninterested in the administration of the European Parliament, she was one of the few Brits who put herself forward for the role.
One woman, 12 jobs
Bearders concentration on wildlife and trafficking in the previous term was typical for the role of an MEP within a large delegation, where each person usually takes on a niche issue on which to devote their issues. With her 11 former colleagues now out of the Parliament, Bearder’s office receives many calls from former MEPs who want to tell Bearder how to use the Liberal Democrats’ one vote.
McMillan Scott, voted out last year, wants Bearder to continue his work on the ending the Parliament’s so-called “travelling circus” of holding sessions in Strasbourg, France once a month.
“I single-handedly resurrected the campaign for a single seat in the European Parliament,” he notes. “I rather shamelessly used my position as a vice-president, where you can be more impartial, and formed a cross-party group. The campaign moved the issue from silence to 78% of members voting to scrap the Strasbourg seat in the last term.”
Without McMillan-Scott’s leadership the single seat campaign has largely gone silent in the new term, and Bearder hasn’t yet had time to get involved in trying to revive it. Such has been the fate of many issues which Liberal Democrats had championed.
“There were some big personalities in our delegation,” says McMillan-Scott. “Andrew Duff with his hard federalism, Sharon Bowles who was chairman of the economics committee, Sarah Ludford who was a vice-president of the Parliament. I sympathise with Catherine that she has to carry all these burdens on her own.”
“They’re always on the other end of the phone,” Bearder says of her former colleagues. She notes that former MEP Chris Davies, instrumental in reforming the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy in 2013, is helping her with fisheries issues. Ludford now sits in the House of Lords and is a crucial lifeline to Westminster. Bowles is now a director at the London Stock Exchange.
Comparing the situation to a national parliament, it is notable that the MEPs who were the most successful in the European Parliament were the ones voted out, while an MEP without much legislative achievement was re-elected. But this is the reality of the European elections, which are fought almost entirely on national issues rather than European ones, particularly in the UK.
“That’s the world we live in,” notes one former Liberal Democrat official. “The other MEPs got a lot done in the European Parliament, but Catherine has always been very good at local politics and she was in her constituency often. That’s where she excels, she’s very personable. But it seems that the more successful work you do in Brussels and Strasbourg, the less likely you are to be re-elected.”
A transformed pan-European group
The Liberal Democrats aren’t alone in their misfortune. In the previous term they and their liberal colleagues from the German FDP party were the two largest parties in the Liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. Both were decimated in last year’s European election – the FDP fell from 12 seats to three. The pan-European liberal group is now made up of a motley crew of small parties. The largest party is now EDP, the liberal alliance of France, with seven MEPs.
“The fact that we were decimated was an important feature in changing the character of the ALDE group,” says former MEP Andrew Duff. “The group is now composed of quite a large number of small parties from small countries. It makes the cohesion of the group rather more problematic than it had been previously.”
With the cacophony of voices now in the pan-European liberal group, it has fallen to Bearder alone to represent British liberalism. “In the group, I’m the spokesman for all the Brits,” says Bearder. “When I speak now, people do listen, wheras before if you have heavyweights like Andrew and Graham in the party, you can just sit back and relax.”
There is concern within the liberal democrat ranks that Bearder may not have the stamina to occupy such a demanding role for the full five-year term. However Duff believes that with the help of the Liberal Democrat infrastructure in Brussels, she can hold the fort.
“One ought not to underestimate the problems that we face, but having said that, Catherine has got broad shoulders, and we are preparing to recuperate from this electoral disaster,” he says. “But I’m not certain it can be done in a great hurry.”
Bearder believes that Britain’s upcoming in-out EU referendum will give the Liberal Democrats more visibility, as the most pro-European British party. It will fall to her to do much of the campaigning for the yes vote.
“We need to concentrate on selling our values, the things that make us Lib Dems,” she says. “The voters need to see that there is a reason to vote for us.”