With the Brexit talks finally underway, we revisit Guy Verhofstadt’s Europe’s Last Chance for an insight into the man with the power to veto the final deal.
At the beginning of the year, the European Union was on the ropes.
Fears of a Brexit defection infection, and a ‘Trump-inspired wave’ of far-right nationalism toppling traditional parties in the Dutch, French and German elections, meant ‘Europeanists’ were contemplating the end of the EU.
Yet, in light of the divisions the Brexit process has caused within the UK – with British citizens’ status in the EU looking uncertain, and multinationals migrating to Frankfurt and Paris – Macron’s injection of pro-EU life-force, and far-right movements struggling to gain ground, the EU seems to be back on its feet.
Despite the refugee crisis on its southern border and Poland’s descent into dictatorship, questioning the Union’s very existence has largely gone out of fashion once again.
In fact, Europeans are feeling rather positive. Statistics from the Pew Research Centre show that the EU’s approval ratings around Europe have seen a sharp increase since Brexit.
For Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgium Prime Minister, the collapse of the EU would have been a catastrophe. The ardent federalist is, he says, “in love with Europe.”
You can tell a lot about someone from how they react to a crisis.
In response, he wrote Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union, arguing that the bloc must pull together, and reform, to resist splintering into divided nations.
In his role as the European Parliament’s (EP) representative in the ongoing Brexit talks, Verhofstadt is a key player. He has the power to veto the final deal.
So what do we know about him from Europe’s Last Chance?
1. He is not unaware of the EU’s malaise.
Verhofstadt is cast as a eurobuffon in much of the press. Yet the leader of the Liberal ALDE faction is acutely aware of the problems that threaten the European project he so believes in:
“…Great Britain’s decision to exit the EU; devastating terror attacks in Paris; desperate refugees flooding into nations unable – or unwilling – to shelter them humanely; intricate currency issues shaking the foundation of a common market; belligerents like Russia and ISIS promising fearful assaults…”
And his support for the EU is not unconditional. He is critical, for example, of the hypocrisy of the bureaucratic EU.
“Where a rule does not exist, we apply one; where the application of a rule is officially required, we do our utmost to avoid it.”
But unlike many – especially British – commentators, who believe these problems show it’s time to jump ship, Verhofstadt believes in more, not less, Europe.
2. He believes the EU should become like the US – a federation.
Famous for his outspoken tweets, and for laying into right-wing Eurosceptics in Parliament, the floppy-haired, proudly European Verhofstadt has fast become the poster-boy for European federalists.
Any #Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved.The clock is ticking – it's time to get real.
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) May 1, 2017
“The only way to survive,” he writes, is to give the EU “the powers and means to tackle the crisis it faces.”
How would he equip the EU with these “powers and means?” By creating the United States of Europe.
“Unless Europe emulates its American cousin, it is surely doomed.” For a European politician – with the apparent exception of Emmanuel Macron – Verhofstadt is surprisingly deferential towards the United States.
The U.S.E would mean social as well as economic integration – which Verhofstadt believes should have been done when the Union was founded in 1957 – with a cross-border FBI-style crime-fighting agency, a European Banking Union etc.
The idea is that global problems – such as climate change and financial crises – cannot be solved at an individual state level, so our system for solving them must be international.
Terrorism, for example, is “not hampered by national borders,” he argues, unlike a non-federal Europe.
3. Guy Verhofstadt sees nationalism as a disease.
Verhofstadt makes it abundantly clear that he believes nationalism is “the root of Europe’s problems.”
“Rather than opening their eyes and making the correct diagnosis, the member states – particularly France and Germany – continue to think they can meet the [EU’s] challenges on their own without making use of the full European scale.”
He talks about nationalism in very violent terms – as a “disease.” The same disease that caused the Holocaust.
He also criticises heads of state for the empty promises to their electorates, that – as long as they are concerned about “preserving the sacred cow of national sovereignty” – they will never be able to deliver.
As for popular opinion, he believes the majority of Europeans are pro-EU, but that political decisions should not be contingent on public approval:
“Many of today’s political leaders are followers rather than frontrunners, politicians who stick their fingers in the air to determine which way the wind is blowing rather than mavericks who fly in the face of public opinion where necessary.”
Unsurprisingly, Verhofstadt has not endeared himself to those across the spectrum who see the EU as an undemocratic, meddling, regulatory machine.
He is utterly single-minded in his belief that a federal Europe, free of nationalism, is “the only way to survive.” And ultimately the EU’s survival is more important than what he sees as fickle public opinion.
“The longer we leave our condition untreated”, he argues, “the more difficult it will be to cure.”
4. He is vehemently anti-Brexit.
There is not much love lost between Guy Verhofstadt and the Brexit brigade. Last year he labelled them all “rats”
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Verhofstadt sees Brexit as a historic – and highly irrational – mistake, that will harm the UK economically and socially.
Not only will students “be excluded from Erasmus,” but European research funding will decrease, and the poorer areas of the southwest and the northeast will stop receiving EU aid.
He also argues that Brexit was a “divorce that only a minority seems to have wanted,” that it legitimised racism and xenophobia of the right wing press, and cleaved the country in two.
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.”
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Not only does he see Brexit as an ugly mess, but he also believes the EU can’t be soft with Britain. This, he argues, would only embolden anti-EU parties who already see the EU as a “doormat.”
Brexit was a “divorce that only a minority seems to have wanted.”
On top of all that, Verhofstadt has a veto, and he’s not afraid to use it.
He has already made it clear that if he thinks it’s in the best interests of the European Union, Verhofstadt will kill the Brexit deal, threatening to block any deal he feels doesn’t respect the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and British citizens in Europe. Yikes.
5. Guy Verhofstadt is not shy of the limelight.
For what is supposed to be a blueprint for the future of the EU, there’s an awful lot of ‘I’ in Europe’s Last Chance.“I wanted to lend my symbolic support to the people of Paris, who had suffered so much…”
And there is much talk of huge crowds coming to hear him speak.
Verhofstadt clearly sees himself as one of the aforementioned “mavericks,” and his tweeting habits and penchant for making news show he is embracing his central role in the Brexit talks. This is a man who ran to be EP president, after all.
Britons that want a soft Brexit will hope he uses his position to put pressure on both sides to come to a deal that is even-handed and sensible, and that he won’t be too vindictive.
But some fear that his tough stance on Brexit, and his desire not to be lenient with the Conservative negotiating team, may see the UK dumped out of Europe with nothing to soften the blow.
Clearly, Guy Verhofstadt using his veto would be a disaster for both sides.