Verhfostadt: EU needs reform - or risks disintegration
ALDE group leader talks Brexit, refugee crisis, and why despite everything, he still has unwavering confidence in the European project.
He's been referred to as a 'political rock star' and went viral after he berated Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in plenary last July. The speech amassed over seven million views and was shared nearly 90,000 times on social media - almost the same amount as US President Barack Obama's 2012 victory speech. Pretty impressive for a member of an institution that struggles to capture the attention of those outside Brussels.
Thanks to his animated - and often angry - addresses, Guy Verhofstadt, who was Prime Minister of Belgium for nearly a decade, has gained a reputation as one of the European Parliament's most outspoken members. Coveted by worldwide media, he is one of the few MEPs whose name people know.
Last summer's Greek crisis has been replaced with new dramas - in recent weeks chief among them has been the prospect of Brexit.
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Verhofstadt says he has no doubt that, "Britain is stronger in Europe and Europe is stronger with Britain in it. It is in the interests of both the EU and the UK to conclude a mutually beneficial agreement. The only winners from Brexit would be Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin. Both relish a divided Europe."
He does concede, however, that; "Europe needs reform. If Britain doesn't want to be part of further political integration, then let's respect this and let's work to recognise this fact in the treaties. If played well, this could be a win - win for the UK and the rest of Europe."
UK Prime Minister David Cameron's EU membership renegotiation with the leaders of the other 27 member states rages on. Several key points - which Parliament will have to agree to before they can become legally binding - have stirred controversy, most notably granting non-Eurozone countries a veto on Eurozone issues and applying an 'emergency brake' to welfare benefits for EU migrants.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz has already voiced his opposition to the veto, insisting that MEPs would carefully consider the welfare proposals, something the man formerly known as 'Baby Thatcher' agrees with.
"I don't believe that non-Eurozone countries should have vetoes on Eurozone issues. The emergency brake will be assessed by the European Parliament in a constructive and open manner, in line with normal legislative procedure. MEPs, as co-legislators, will decide whether this is proportionate and fair."
Cameron is also seeking to have the term 'ever closer Union' removed from the treaties, which some argue contradicts the whole purpose of a union.
The Belgian MEP believes that, "ultimately, we will have to formalise a 'two speed' institutional set-up within the European Union, to cater for the differing priorities of our members states. It is vital we start the process of treaty revision soon."
"That way we can offer a special status to the UK, which does not wish to pursue further political integration. This special status will also ensure that the core group of member states, who do want to advance and integrate further, cannot be prevented from doing so."
Verhofstadt adds that; "Europe's challenge now is to clean up the messy 'Europe à la carte' we have created. We need to prevent further disintegration and ensure the European Union has the tools to be able to tackle the multiple crises we are now facing."
One such crisis - which the ALDE group leader has repeatedly said is far more important than the British referendum - is the refugee crisis. This has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, fleeing war and poverty in their home countries.
Determined to help bring forward solutions, Verhofstadt last month presented an ALDE group 'Roadmap to get a grip on the refugee crisis'.
Since the crisis started many months ago, there have been countless EU leader summits, speeches and proposals. However, there has been no concrete action on the part of the member states. So why does the Belgian MEP believe that this time, things will be different?
"We know what needs to be done to solve the refugee crisis. It should not be beyond the means of the largest economy in the world to deal with the consequences of it. I have no doubt our first priority should be to deal with the root cause of this crisis, which is the worsening regional conflict in our own backyard in Syria."
"It is this conflict, in particular the indiscriminate bombing by Russia, that is driving refugees towards Europe and creating a humanitarian disaster in Aleppo and elsewhere. European leaders will soon face some stark choices; do we deal with these challenges together, or do we risk giving Putin what he wants; the disintegration of the European Union as we know it?"
Some have suggested that Europe needs to cooperate with Moscow to fight Isis. It's no secret that Verhofstadt is no fan of Putin, and has even been blacklisted from Russia.
He says, "For the time being at least, it seems Putin has no interest in defeating Isis. As we have seen from the mass and indiscriminate Russian bombing of opposition forces in Aleppo, Putin's priority is to preserve President Assad's grip on power and replace the US as the dominant international power in the Middle East."
"The fact that this is leading to a huge new wave of refugees heading for Turkey and the European Union, is a welcome spin-off for him. The EU should now be looking a number of measures to pressurise Putin, including enhanced economic sanctions linked to Russian implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions it has signed on the Syrian peace process."
The refugee situation has spiralled into a crisis of confidence in Europe and a near-breakdown of Schengen. Many countries are temporarily closing their borders, unable to cope with the large influx of people.
Verhofstadt admits that, "Schengen is certainly sick, but it is far from dead. It is likely we will continue to see temporary restrictions in the medium term, but we also have to remind ourselves what the costs of 'non-Schengen' would be."
"A French government study published this month estimated the costs of non-Schengen would be the equivalent of a loss of 0.8 per cent GDP, equivalent to over €100bn. This report should be sent to finance ministers in every European capital."
This situation, combined with the prospect of a member state leaving the Union, a looming financial crash and the rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, paints a bleak picture of the EU. So why does Verhfostadt retain so much confidence in the European project, despite the EU's poor track record in tackling the various crises?
"The problem is not 'Europe', the problem is that member states have refused to work together to tackle these crises. It is high time that the member states finally realise that only European solutions will solve European problems. I believe Europe can be reformed to be able to tackle the new global challenges that we now face."
It's somewhat of a strange time for politics, with an increasingly visible divide between the far-right and the far-left and not much in between. At times, it seems that centrist politics are being drowned out.
Nevertheless, Verhofstadt points out that, "Liberals and Democrats now have seven Prime Ministers across the European Union and polling evidence suggests that if European elections were to take place tomorrow, ALDE would be the political group seeing the greatest increase in its numbers of MEPs."
"Over the last few months, we have seen a liberal revival in big member states, for example Ciudadanos in Spain and Nowoczesna in Poland, so the future for Liberalism is bright. It is important to be able to adapt in modern politics, but giving up ones principles in an attempt to appease extremists is rarely rewarded at the polling booths."
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