Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Verhofstadt also raised the “risk of deportation” that “some UK government members” have warned could happen for those EU citizens who do not apply for Settled Status after Brexit.
He told the Constitutional Affairs Committee, “That is not acceptable.”
In a vote, the Committee gave its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), which was subsequently signed off on Friday by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, her Council counterpart.
The European Parliament’s plenary next Wednesday is expected to also give its consent to the deal and the UK will then formally exit the EU on 31 January.
Verhofstadt, who said he will stand down as chair of Parliament's Brexit Steering Group (BSG), highlighted his and the institution's ongoing Brexit priorities, notably concerning citizens’ rights.
He pointed to the way the UK authorities “have implemented the agreement” including the government's Settled Status scheme.
He told the meeting, “We clearly need to continue scrutiny of the way the Withdrawal Agreement is implemented in the coming months.”
“Personally, I find this a very sad moment today, but I have to be open with you. We are not voting for or against Brexit. That is not the choice today; it’s the choice between an orderly Brexit or a hard Brexit” Guy Verhofstadt MEP
The Belgian MEP said, “There is no European Parliament oversight on this but this will be necessary because we still have problems about the way the UK is implementing the deal and, also, how some EU governments have implemented the Withdrawal Agreement too.”
“For instance, 12 Member States have chosen a registration system for UK citizens in Europe. This is easy as citizens just have to register. But other Member States have gone for an application system, like the UK has done for EU citizens in Britain.”
“This system, being applied by some Member States, creates a far more heavy burden on citizens.”
Verhofstadt said that Parliament had identified “six concrete problems” with the Withdrawal Agreement, “including three big problems.”
He added, “Personally, I find this a very sad moment today but I have to be open with you. We are not voting for or against Brexit. That is not the choice today; it’s the choice between an orderly Brexit or a hard Brexit. Let us be clear about this.”
The BSG, he said, will now be replaced by the “UK Coordination Group” after 1 February, chaired by German EPP member David McAllister.
“This will face another difficult task - the future relationship with the UK.”
“Brexit is no longer the settled will of the UK people: some 53 percent of those voted for in the UK election voted for parties who demanded another EU membership referendum, a majority” Richard Corbett MEP
He added, “I still hope there will come a day when, and I and the likes of Richard Corbett may not be here for it, we will see UK MEPs back in this Parliament.”
He paid tribute to British MEPs on the Committee, saying, “I am pretty sure we will miss their knowledge and capacity to find solutions to things which the UK has shown as an EU member over the last few decades.”
A clearly sombre Corbett, the longest-serving member of the committee, voiced “great personal sadness that my last act is to vote on withdrawal of my country from the EU. But I also speak with a sense of outrage that it came to this.”
“Brexit is no longer the settled will of the UK people: some 53 per cent of those voted for in the UK election voted for parties who demanded another EU membership referendum, a majority. Polls show if we’d had another referendum we would have stayed in the EU.”
Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness said that after the furore of Brexit, “I hope people can now listen and show respect to each other. I voted in favour of this resolution with a heavy heart. This is a bad day’s work. I hope that the UK (exit) is a one off.”
Danuta Hubner, a Polish EPP MEP, said, “The Withdrawal Agreement will now become law and this is a very emotional and painful moment for me. Parliament will continue to be constructive in our approach though.”
“I regret that the UK is leaving and hope citizens in the UK and Europe will not pay the price of Brexit. Our work here though is not over and Parliament’s task is to deal with what will certainly be tough negotiations with the UK.”
She went on, “Time will be factor because we have just eight months to finalise the trade talks. I hope both sides will faithfully implement all provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement. We will certainly keep an eye on things to ensure that citizens don’t have their rights taken away.”
“The UK says it does not want to extend the transition period so there is a real possibility of another cliff edge on 1 January 2021. The chance of this still exists and we must be ready for this. My sincere hope is that we can find a deal on the best possible relationship,” said the BSG member.
Committee chair Antonio Tajani, meanwhile, led tributes to the departing UK MEPs, saying, “This is a historic event albeit a sombre one. A Member State is leaving. This is not a moment for celebration though we must respect the sovereign decision even if it is one I deeply regret.
“The EU, since its inception, has striven for closer integration so the UK exit is the antithesis of this principle. The EU, throughout the Brexit process, has striven to ensure this causes as little disruption as possible.”
The Italian EPP deputy is keen, he said, that the UK and EU “bring certainty to the 4.5m citizens most directly affected - those in the EU and in Europe.”
He said, “Their rights should not be sacrificed for this deal. The Good Friday Agreement must also be respected to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. The UK must also settle its financial obligations to the EU and this committee will closely follow proceedings.”
“We should now focus on the next stage of the talks which I hope will be balanced, fair and will work in both parties’ interests.”
He thanked committee members Verhofstadt and Danuta Hubner who “have done their utmost to ensure we reach a positive solution.”
“I want to voice to our UK colleagues my gratitude for their huge commitment and positive contribution to this committee’s work.”
He concluded by saying, “You are not only MEPs but friends of ours. You will be missed.”
Some UK members, including Labour’s Corbett, were given a standing ovation.