Guy Verhofstadt Exclusive Interview: ‘The European Union is not responsible for Brexit’

We spoke to Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit representative, to discuss Brexit, citizens’ rights and Phase Two of negotiations.

What’s the EP’s agenda regarding citizens’ rights in the second phase of the negotiations?

‘There are many outstanding issues that the European Parliament will continue to clarify, from the administrative procedures that will apply for EU citizens in the UK, to the free movement rights of UK citizens in the EU. We need the initial agreement on citizens’ rights to now be put into a legally cast iron treaty and presented for review by MEPs. We will insist that the implementation date of the withdrawal treaty starts at the end of any transition period requested by the British Government. Both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU need clarity as soon as possible and we are committed to ensuring the minimum disruption to people’s lives.

Is the coming negotiation on citizens’ rights going to be limited to the EU residents in the UK settled before Brexit or will it be extended to those applying for residency after Brexit? Same question about the British residents in the EU.

‘A number of outstanding issues remain for both groups of citizens, from free movement for UK citizens in the EU, to the governance of the rights of EU nationals in the UK.

Do you still support a version of the proposal for Associate Citizenship for UK citizens? What would this entail?

‘I will continue to push for recognition that millions of UK citizens are having their European rights taken away from them against their will. Europe should recognise this, in my opinion.’

Recent YouGov polls suggest a growing number of Brits have ‘buyers remorse’ about Brexit. What do you make of this? Do you think Brexit will actually happen?

‘The British Government, on behalf of the British people, has submitted its intentions to leave the European Union and of course we have to implement this, but we do not do so with glee. The British people must take responsibility for their own destiny.’

If Britain changed its mind, how likely would it be that the EU27 would rescind article 50 and welcome them back?     

‘President Juncker, Tusk and Macron have all said the door remains open, but this would require the agreement of all EU member states and the European Parliament.’

Some say the EU cannot officially negotiate with the UK on a trade deal as long as they are a member state. Britain would need to first revert to third country status under Article 218. Do you foresee any problems there?

‘The ongoing Brexit talks will aim to secure a political declaration outlining a possible future framework for trade negotiations, once Britain becomes a third country after “Brexit day”.’

Does anyone in Brussels regret Jean-Claude Juncker not giving concessions to David Cameron before he called the referendum?

‘The European Union offered David Cameron unprecedented concessions, including an opt-out of “ever closer union”. In the end, the renegotiation hardly featured in the referendum debate.’

What has the EU done to remedy the underlying issues that partly led to Brexit?

‘The European Union is not responsible for Brexit. Support for the European project has increased profoundly since the referendum. However, I agree the European Union needs to reform if it is to survive; fixing the eurozone, doing less but better, building a real defence union so people feel safe, securing Europe’s external borders and delivering fairer globalisation are our priorities. Too many communities have been “left behind”, but the reasons for this are complex, multi-faceted and in most cases the result of a lack of investment by national governments.’

Guy Verhofstadt

Europe’s Last Chance by Guy Verhofstadt: understanding the man with the Brexit veto

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.

Guy Verhofstadt
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.

guy verhofstadt
Tens of thousands joined the #marchforeurope protest in London on 2nd July 2016

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.

“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.

~

Frank Andrews.

Guy Verhofstadt

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.