is a new entry this year
When former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was
appointed as the lead Brexit negotiator for the European
Parliament, dismay rippled through the halls of Westminster
– at least among UK politicians hoping for an easy
process in negotiating its exit from the EU.
When asked about Verhofstadt, David Davis, the UK's
secretary of state for exiting the European Union, responded:
"get thee behind me, Satan!"
More recently, UK Conservative MP Iain Duncan-Smith told him
to "mind his own bloody business" after he tweeted
congratulations to Sarah Olney, MP for the pro-European Liberal
Democrats, who took a seat which had previously been held by a
Eurosceptic in a December 1 by-election. In April, even before
the Brexit referendum, British MEP Syed Kamall, chair of the
73-MEP European Conservatives and Reformists group in the
European Parliament, was caught on camera making an offensive
hand gesture during a Verhofstadt speech.
So why is Verhofstadt so reviled by the British,
particularly those on the right?
For the most part, it is his impassioned opposition to the
kind of Brexit deal that Britain wants. He is a federalist in
favour of an ever-closer European Union, the same ideology that
many of the 52% of Brits who voted to leave the EU were railing
against. Moreover, it is his view that the four freedoms of the
EU – goods, services, capital and people –
are inseparable. He is a no-nonsense negotiator and a staunch
defender of the EU, even advocating for a 'United States of
As examined in the profile for Theresa May, this spells big
trouble for the UK's hopes of staying in the European single
market, unless it adopts a Norwegian-style relationship with
the EU, which would be inadequate for many Brexit voters.
As the counterpart of Michel Barnier, negotiator for the
European Commission, Verhofstadt will keep the Conference of
Presidents (comprising the European Parliament President and
group leaders) fully informed of developments and will help
prepare the parliament's position in the negotiations in close
consultation with the Conference of Presidents. The European
Parliament will need to approve a possible agreement on the
conditions for the UK's departure from the EU and Verhofstadt
will also work closely with the Chair of the constitutional
affairs committee, Danuta Hübner, and other committees
wherever necessary to shape parliament's negotiating
Separately, in November, Verhofstadt was re-elected as
president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
group. The group comprises 70 MEPs and affiliated prime
ministers in seven countries: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia,
Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Liberal
parties are also in government in Croatia, the Czech Republic
Tax-wise, his group holds a great deal of clout. EU
Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager (top of the Global
Tax 50 for the second year running), Andrus Ansip, European
commissioner for the digital single market, who was in last
year's Global Tax 50 list, and Swede Cecilia Malström,
European commissioner for trade, are all members of
pan-European liberal parties.
He has frequently used his position to talk on tax matters,
perhaps most notably taking European Commission President
Jean-Claude Juncker to task in the aftermath of the 2014
LuxLeaks scandal, which focused on the prevalence of favourable
tax rulings given by Juncker's home nation of Luxembourg.
Verhofstadt is also in favour of a reform of the European
personal tax system that would see EU citizens paying directly
into the EU budget, rather than having member states make
contributions from their national budgets.
"I don't want a new tax; I simply want to change the
taxation system. The EU should be funded by the citizens; not
by the member states," he said in 2014. "Nobody would have to
pay more; people would just pay it directly to the EU
– that's it. If people pay for Europe, they will have
more interest in it, and the EU will be accountable to the
people and not to the member states."
On his EU-wide plans, Verhofstadt's ideas can be considered
to be radical. Similarly, his plans are completely at odds with
Eurosceptic leaders in the UK, but they will have to start
– perhaps not singing – but humming along
reluctantly to each other's tunes if they are to avoid mutually
assured destruction in Brexit negotiations. The devil may
dance, but it takes two to tango.
Verhofstadt's influence within the EU means that his views
matter greatly, and these will have to be catered to during