Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Who Is Guy Verhofstadt?

Adelina Marini, July 10, 2015

It is extremely rare for Bulgarian society to get inflamed over a European subject and even rarer to be impressed by a European leader. It is Guy Verhofstadt who managed to accomplish that. His speech in the European Parliament on Wednesday morning during the debate with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was the most shared video and text in my Facebook feed for months. Over 50 people from my friends list (quite a limited list I must confess) shared the video of Mr Verhofstadt’s speech and several dozen others shared the text of his statement in English. Everyone was praising his words, for he practically voiced what all of them are thinking about Greece and most of all about the behaviour of Prime Minister Tsipras.

He starts his speech with the words “I am angry Mr Tsipras, because let's face it. We have been sleepwalking towards a Grexit. For five years now. And the past months we are even running towards it, with our eyes open. With your eyes open. But, it is not you who is going to pay the bill. Who is going to pay the bill are the ordinary Greeks!”, says the MEP famous for his passionate and turbulent speeches. Many Bulgarians admired these words, envious that we have no such politicians in Bulgaria.

And what politician is Guy Verhofstadt?

He is a Liberal. At the moment he is the leader of the Liberals group in the European Parliament. In the past he was Prime Minister of Belgium and unusually long term at that (for this country) – 1999 to 2008. Before that he was deputy PM and minister of budget in the government of the late Wilfried Martens, who headed the EPP to his death. According to Wikipedia, he was known as “baby Thatcher” because of his economic views and the young age at which he entered politics, but the author of this alias is unknown. Guy Verhofstadt is one of these figures that are unable to stay inconspicuous. Although Flemish, he has a vigorous and emotional demeanour that can be seen in almost every one of his speeches in the European Parliament. He ran twice for European Commission President but lost both times. 

In his memoir “A Journey” the former PM of Great Britain Tony Blair writes, that in 2004 he organised a resistance against the French-German proposition that it is exactly Guy Verhofstadt (then PM of Belgium) that will succeed Jacques Santer as EC President. “This was the first time the twin-engine motor of Europe had been stalled in respect of such a big issue”, writes Mr Blair. In his opinion José Manuel Barroso was the better choice (for Great Britain) “if you wanted Europe to reform in a non-federalist direction”. “Guy Verhofstadt, is a nice guy, and bright, but very Brussels” is the former United Kingdom PM’s description and he continues to tell an almost forgotten story from the time of Belgium’s presidency of the Council in 2001 with the negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol were going on at the same time. At the G8 summit in Genoa Guy Verhofstadt represented the EU from the position of rotation president.

He was, however, totally unknown to the recently elected US president George W. Bush who was very impressed by the Belgian PM’s advice. Bush turned to Blair for more information and the following dialogue ensued, according to Blair’s book: “Who is this guy?” asked Bush. “This is the Prime Minister of Belgium”, answered Blair. “Belgium?” asked the American president. “Belgium is not part of G8”. “No, but he is here as the president of Europe”, clarified the British Prime Minister. “You got the Belgians running Europe?!” exclaimed Bush and shook his head in disbelief. 

Ten years later Guy Verhofstadt was again candidate to head the Commission, but this time under completely different circumstances. For the first time in the history of the European Parliament and the EU as a whole the first step was made towards real European elections. Under pressure from the European Parliament and due to Verhofstadt’s Liberals’ great effort it was agreed that the leader of the EC would be elected among the candidates of the European political parties. Thus Belgium’s former PM was nominated by his party and joined the first pan-European battle for an EU top job. Ironically, among his opponents was the current Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras, nominated by the group of the far left. 

euinside thoroughly described the debates and the procedure that became known as Spitzenkandidaten, but it is worth reminding a few key elements of Verhofstadt’s election platform. As a renowned federalist and founder of the Eurofederalist parliamentary “Spinelli group” he envisioned solving all the EU’s economic problems at the federal level. He is among the ideologists and supporters of the creation of Eurobonds, a European monetary fund, and rechanneling the European budget towards massive and innovative projects. During the campaign he proposed the creation of a possibility for credit mobility in addition to the Banking Union, mobility of social insurance systems as a way to battle internal European migration, and stood for a common European defence. Towards Russia and the conflict in the Ukraine he had an extreme view – Russia to be driven out of the Ukraine once and for all.  

During the campaign his party published a proposal to create an Internet union with its key element being the creation of pan-European wireless Internet. A vision that large US Internet companies are about to accomplish by launching satellites to provide free Internet. His Eurofederalism and the fact that liberal parties are not very widespread over the EU were the reasons not to win the EC presidency. Regardless, he continues to be extremely active as a MEP. The group he leads initiated a number of plenary debates on the authoritarianisation of Hungary. The Liberals’ group offered a democratic governance pact in the context of the EC’s failed proposal to create a common European mechanism for enforcing Rule of Law, similar to the one that Bulgaria and Romania joined with in 2007.

In their proposal the liberals insist democratic governance is elevated to equal importance with the economic one in the framework of the European Semester. They feel indicators must be developed for the condition of democracy and they should be regularly monitored in a special scoreboard. Among these indicators should be freedom of speech, freedom of the press and media pluralism, equality and lack of discrimination, freedom of religion, beliefs, consciousness, independent judicial system, freedom of assembly, position of political parties, obstacles to opposition, balance of powers, civil society development, transparency, rule of law, access to justice. Determining whether member countries are following the rules is to be trusted to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, whose mandate should be widened and strengthened.

Among Guy Verhofstadt’s accomplishments is also the very appearance of Alexis Tsipras in the European Parliament itself. At first the Greek PM refused the invitation of the boss of the EP Martin Schulz, but after tumultuous response, much of which coming from the Liberals and Guy Verhofstadt Mr Tsipras acquiesced. The MEP wrote on Twitter that it was a scandal that the Greek Prime Minister refused to appear in the European Parliament for debate. “You are the PM of Greece, the cradle of democracy”, he wrote and continued in his next Tweet: “If Tsipras wants European taxpayers to bail out Greece, he must explain what he wants to do next in full transparency”. After Tsipras agreed, Verhofstadt welcomed him, saying the fate of not only Greece, but the EU was at stake. 

Even though the liberals and Guy Verhofstadt himself are among the most forward-thinking politicians in the EU, with vision and ambition, they have the same vices, although to a lesser extent, as the large European political families. As this website repeatedly reported, Bulgarian voters, some of whom probably already fans of the former Belgian PM, could vote for him becoming leader of the EC through two parties in Bulgaria – DPS and NDSV. Liberals have often accused at plenary sessions their colleagues of the EPP and Socialist and Democrats for tolerating unjust regimes, while at the same time avoiding the fact that a party that is a member of the liberal family is an active, though covert accomplice in the building of a mighty politically-media empire, that thwarts any form of criticism and protest by undemocratic means.

Up until now ALDE have not once publicly criticised DPS, which could be explained with the vital need to secure their votes in the EP, especially after the last elections when the liberals dropped from third largest political power in the previous Parliament to fourth place. Guy Verhofstadt’s speech shows support can be won by expressing strong positions and ideas. If the Liberals want to arrest their fall and widen support for their ideas they need to show that they are really different from the mainstream political parties by cleansing themselves of discrediting entities. This applies to them in particular, for the Liberals are Europe’s loudest voice in favour of democratic values. They are still the authors of a democratic pact.

DPS have no place in the same sentence with democracy. They are its destroyer. Bulgarian society has matured to liberal ideas, but Bulgaria is lacking a single liberal party in Parliament (DPS is inherently not a liberal party). Bulgarian voters with liberal views would never vote for Verhofstadt or any other liberal candidate if it means going through DPS.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev