|Guy Verhofstadt 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 Europe'.
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 position.
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 and Lithuania.
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 Brexit negotiations.
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