European liberty campaigners gather in Madrid

On 23 and 24 May, the Europe Liberty Forum took place in Madrid. It was hosted by Atlas Network, which connects nearly 600 independent think tanks in more than 100 countries, and is almost completely funded by individuals and foundations, in cooperation with its Spanish partner Fundalib (The Foundation for the Advancement of Liberty). The forum marks one of the most prominent gatherings of liberty minded organisations in Europe of the year. During the event, a whole range of key topics affecting European society were being discussed by liberty advocates from both Europe and the rest of the world.

Illegal occupation of properties

Roxana Nicula of Fundalib discussed the problem of illegal occupation of properties in Spain, recalling how “in Spain, property rights are being endangered. For the past decade, there have been up to 17.000 property violations and illegal occupations of houses per year. 47 percent of property owners in Spain are individuals, so these are real people, in particular middle and low income families, that have often inherited properties. Owners then are forced to continue to pay for utilities, even if they do not live there themselves.

In my family, we have faced a similar case ourselves. We inherited a small flat in Alicante. After a few months, it was almost occupied illegally. Thankfully, the neighbours were quick enough to alert the authorities. We were lucky but there are however up to 17000 cases where this has happened. This puts a big burden on the judicial system, as police cannot just evict illegal occupants like that. Now we see a slightly declining trend, with up to 14000 cases, also because we have published some tips on how to avoid one’s property being occupied.”

She thereby also presented another project of her think tank, the “index of economic freedom for Spanish cities”, mentioning how “apparently, also in Italy, a similar ranking will now be published.”

Sensible environmental policies

Recently, Atlas Network has been accused of vilifying climate protesters, despite the fact that energy policy isn’t a core component of the organization’s mission and while the network’s think tank partners are actually supporting free speech for climate protesters, for example during the most recent protests in Georgia. Atlas-connected think tanks however fundamentally challenge punitive climate policies, instead advocating pro-market reforms, thereby relying on innovation as a means to solve environmental challenges instead.

The Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI) for example helped remove a cap on the development of solar energy farms in the country, amidst a broader effort to increase competition in the energy market. In the United States, the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) advocate similar solutions of market-based environmentalism.

Also at the Europe Liberty Forum in Madrid, such an approach received praise, with Fundalib’s Manuel Fernández Ordóñez mentioning how “in less than a decade, in the 1980s, France managed to swap a large part of coal-generated energy into nuclear-generated energy. No other country has managed to do this. This shows how technology truly can serve as a solution for environmental challenges.”

Fighting for the rule of law

At the forum, profound concerns were furthermore expressed about the deteriorating rule of law situation in a number of European countries. A sign of the importance attached to this is surely that at the end, the Bulgarian Institute for Market Economics (IME) won the Europe Liberty Award (picture). The think tank has been promoting liberty in the country for decades now, in particular campaigning for accountability and oversight for Bulgaria’s judicial officials.

IME’s campaign bore fruit in December 2023, when the Bulgarian National Assembly voted to amend the constitution to curtail the powers of the prosecutor general, and reduce the length of their term from seven years to five. The think tank’s proposal, first introduced in 2019, laid the groundwork for ending unchecked corruption in the judicial system, limiting the power of unelected officials, and creating a stable economic environment for entrepreneurs and investors.

In Madrid, IME’s Peter Ganev explained the situation more in detail. He said: “In Bulgaria, specialized prosecutors were appointed, to combat corruption. This is just the beginning. This really happened against the odds, as only 25 percent of the electorate voted for politicians supporting these changes. Despite the problems of state capture, Bulgaria is still a free society, which is why ultimately some of the challenges here were overcome. We are not talking about a full state capture.”

He thereby also highlighted the economic policy of his think tank over the years, saying: “Also when it comes to economic policy, we have had successes in Bulgaria. Not only was there the flat tax, but also focusing social spending on the most effective programmes was implemented. This resulted in a reduction in the Gini coefficient in Bulgaria.”

Also, there was a lot of attention for the rule of law in Georgia, where large-scale protests against the government are continuing. At the Madrid event, Mari Kapanadze of the Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI) discussed how “During 12 year de facto rule of oligarch Ivanishvili, we have seen a deterioration of the rule of law, as we can no longer rely on a single independent state institution. There now is full state capture. If we would have had an independent Constitutional Court or independent prosecutors, we would not have to worry about prosecution of peaceful protestors, something that has happened.”

Assessing the European Union

A prominent speaker at the event was seasoned liberty advocate Tom G. Palmer. He stressed that “Defending liberty in Europe” as a panel had been entitled, “sounds too defensive, as important successes have been realized by organisations in Atlas network.”

He thereby again recalled the importance of the rule of law, saying: ”Property used to mean your life, your liberty and your estate. Also the judiciary is crucial. When you do not get the legal system right, you don’t have a market economy.”

On the topic of the course of the European Union, he warned: “The European Union has done good things for EU member states, as it for example enabled more flee flow of goods, but harmonization of taxes is a bad idea: this really amounts to installing a cartel.”

Also speaking at the forum about the European Union was Radovan Ďurana, Chief analyst of Slovak think tank INESS. He said: “We now take the single market for granted, but before Slovakia was a member of the EU, businesses were losing lots of time with customs bureaucracy, which was also very unpredictable. The larger the country, the less it benefits from the single market. In particular smaller EU member states gain from the single market.”

Natalia Macyra, Head of Communications of think tank ECIPE, discussed the opportunities of opening up trade between the EU and the rest of the world, saying that when it comes to making progress, “mini deals may be easier to unlock in the EU, for example facilitating digital cooperation,  This may be easier than expanding the EU or the single market to new member states.”

An intellectual revolution

Gabriel Calzada Álvarez, the founder of private university Universidad de las Hespérides in Spain, recalled at the forum how it took him 15 years to develop a private university in the country. He thereby recalled they had to submit 150000 pages in order to realise the project, a classical liberal university in Gran Canaria.

He stated: “We need to create new institutions, bringing the torch of liberty to education”, thereby also questioning “tenure”, saying: “it makes no sense to pay academics and allow them to do whatever research they feel like. The result is clear: quality is going down, price is going up. Ultimately, this is destroying the American dream.”

Álvarez also predicted: “The online revolution, especially with AI, will change a lot. We will see a clash between old versus new universities, as the new ones will be AI – run. It will ultimately get rid of all those safe spaces at our universities.”

Isidora Kolar of the New Intellectuals Network in Serbia may have expressed the feelings of many attendants when she stated in her talk at the forum that “The Overton Window really includes more and more authoritarian ideas.” She thereby however also expressed optimism, saying: “Thankfully, President Milei in Argentina is offering some hope, as great reforms are undertaken there. This also shows that we not only need story tellers and writers, but also great managers in the liberty movement.”