Guy Verhofstadt on Brexit: 7 things to know

After the British general election on June 8th, representatives of the European Union and the UK government will begin painstakingly unpicking Britain’s ties with the EU.
British Prime Minister Theresa May
British Prime Minister Theresa May

Predictably, tensions are already running high.

Amid rumours of a disastrous dinner at 10 Downing Street with the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that he would soon find her to be a ‘bloody difficult woman.’

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the Chairman of the German SDP and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the Chairman of the German SDP and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, and Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt

And recently Mrs May accused the EU of trying to influence the result of the general election, stoking anti-Europe sentiment in an effort to court wavering UKIP voters and the right wing British press.

Tory claims that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ are a bad omen for Remainers hoping to retain EU citizens’ rights, and not wishing to alienate their continental neighbours.

In the blue corner. Representing Britain during the Brexit talks will be the self-styled no-nonsense deal-maker, Brexit Secretary David Davis, who explained his bullish negotiating strategy in his book ‘How to Turn Round a Company:’

‘The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.’

He recently claimed that Jean-Claude Juncker was trying to get him sacked.

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In the… darker blue corner. Representing the European Union is the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who has been called ‘the most dangerous man in Europe.’

He has already made it clear that the ‘four freedoms’ (free movement of goods, people, services and capital across borders) are indivisible, and that ‘EU membership must always remain the most advantageous status.’

Michel Barnier
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, ‘the most dangerous man in Europe.’

Then, representing the European Parliament – who recently published their red lines on the Brexit negotiations – will be Brexit coordinator, and Nigel Farage’s favourite whipping boy, Guy Verhofstadt.

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The former Prime Minister of Belgium won’t take part in negotiations, but his presence will be acutely felt. Acting on behalf of the European Parliament (EP), Mr. Verhofstadt will have the power to ultimately reject a deal if it is not to the member states’ liking.

And Verhofstadt won’t hesitate to brandish this veto.

In fact, he has already said that the EP would reject a deal that failed to preserve the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe.

European Parliament Strasbourg
European Parliament, Strasbourg

Spoiler alert. Guy Verhofstadt is unlikely to find himself seeing eye to eye with the British negotiating team.

He is aware of the existential crisis facing the EU, but Verhofstadt argues that its roots lie in the EU’s lack of power, not in its incompetence or tendency to meddle in national affairs.

The only way forward is to ‘finish the federal project,’ he writes, and create a ‘United States of Europe.’

So, what do we know about what Mr. Verhofstadt thinks about Brexit? And when might he use the European Parliament veto?

Guy Verhofstadt
Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt with Basque Nationalist Andoni Ortuzar.

In his new book, Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union, his analysis is unequivocal: Brexit was a historic mistake.

Here are his 7 main takeaways from the UK’s decision to leave the EU:

1. Brexit was irrational

Britain owes much of its recent economic growth to the EU internal market, Verhofstadt argues, and both the middle and the working classes are going to suffer the consequences of the decision to leave.

He gives the example of British workers seeing the value of their pensions decrease, ‘or their dreams of living in Spain curtailed,’ in the aftermath of the vote.

Students ‘will be excluded from Erasmus,’ UK universities will no longer benefit from European research grants, he says, and the poorer areas of southwest and northeast England will stop receiving EU aid.

Vote Leave ‘campaigned with emotion,’ writes Verhofstadt, ‘not rationality.’

‘This disgrace of a campaign even motivated the murder Labour MP Jo Cox.’

2. Brexit felt like the end of the United Kingdom

‘The day after the referendum,’ he writes, ‘Brits woke up feeling eerie in a divided country. Racism and xenophobia had been let loose.’

After a ‘merciless leave campaign that had focussed in the nastiest way imaginable on migration instead of whether to remain or leave,’ he says, it is no surprise that there was a sharp spike in hate crimes when Brexit was announced.

‘This disgrace of a campaign even motivated the murder Labour MP Jo Cox,’ Verhofstadt argues, quoting a line published post-referendum in the British tabloid The Sun: ‘Streets full of Polish shops. Kids not speaking English. But the Union jack flying high again.’

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And the campaign reached its ‘nadir,’ he says, when former UKIP leader Nigel Farage unveiled a billboard showing queuing refugees that was emblazoned with the words “Breaking Point:” ‘a ploy directly inspired by a Nazi propaganda film from the late 1930s.’

Nigel Farage
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage in front of his controversial anti-immigration poster during the Brexit campaign.

3. A minority of Brits wanted to leave the EU

Many Leave voters declared that they had only wanted to see the back of David Cameron, Verhofstadt writes, and that ‘they would have voted differently had they known that Brexit was going to happen.’

‘If the Brexit vote proved anything, it proved the “remain” camp right,’ he argues, considering the negative societal and economic consequences the split has already had.

‘It has turned into a divorce that only a minority seems to have wanted,’ while deepening divisions between the Tories, ‘splitting the whole country, and dragging the rest of the EU down with it.’

4. There is ‘no way back’ from Brexit

Given that Tory constituencies voted heavily in favour of Brexit, Verhofstadt sees a second referendum – or a ‘reversal of the first one’ – as ‘highly unlikely:’ ‘There is no way back.’

The biggest risk going forward is that Brexit negotiations ‘drag on for years,’ and join the ‘long list’ of unsolved EU crises: ‘the Greek crisis, the refugee crisis, an unresolved economic crisis, and the seemingly ever-present terrorist threat.’

A child refugee on the Greek island of Lesvos, (Mauro Kourí)
A child refugee on the Greek island of Lesvos, (Mauro Kourí)

5. The EU can’t be soft with Britain

‘The British were right to question the ability of the European Union to meet the challenges we Europeans face,’ writes Verhofstadt, but it would be a mistake to be ‘soft’ with them.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin channelling money to the far-right French Front National and the increasingly anti-Islam United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), giving Britain ‘too much wiggle room to extract favours and deals’ will only embolden anti-European parties who already see the EU as a ‘doormat.’

‘Brexit has turned into a divorce that only a minority seems to have wanted.’

6. Remaining in the internal market would be costly

Theresa May must decide what “remaining close to European neighbours” means, Verhofstadt argues.

‘Does the UK want a trade deal with the EU, like Canada or Japan?’

Or does it want to ‘go a step further’ and retain access to the internal market? If so, Verhofstadt is clear that the UK must accept the ‘four freedoms,’ which would mean agreeing to uncapped immigration from other EU states.

‘The à la carte Europe satisfies no one.’

While Britain and Europe remain close, and are ‘major trading partners,’ retaining the privileges of internal market access ‘would entail Britain’s complete acceptance of EU rules without having a seat at the table, while paying a hefty membership fee.’

7. Brexit must inspire the EU to commit to reform

If there is one thing that can be learnt from the Brexit vote, Verhofstadt argues, it’s that the ‘à la carte Europe,’ with its multiple different levels of membership, ‘ultimately satisfies no one,’ neither the Eurosceptics, nor the European federalists: ‘it makes Europe inexplicable and unsellable to broader public opinion.’

‘The British referendum should lead to a clear choice – between full membership, associated status, or no relationship at all.’

‘No deal’ would mean UK-EU trade terms would default to World Trade Organisation rules, which many believe would be disastrous for the British economy.

But with Mr. Verhofstadt unafraid to lean on his veto powers, and the Conservative government seemingly determined to play hardball, the possibility of one side walking away from the negotiating table during the Brexit talks feels very real.


Frank Andrews.

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