The attack, by German Greens MEP Sven Gielgold, comes in the wake of Verhoftstadt’s reported attempt to forge an alliance with French President Emmanuel Macron and his La Republique En Marche (LREM) ahead of the upcoming European elections in May.
Macron’s party is said to want to gather progressive forces for the European election and, last week after a meeting with senior LREM figures, Verhofstadt underlined what he called his and Macron’s “shared ambitions for Europe”.
Ahead of next year’s European election, the two men want to create a movement that will be a “pro-European alternative to nationalists,” Verhofstadt told French daily newspaper Ouest-France on Sunday.
According to reports, Verhofstadt’s liberal ALDE group in Parliament and Macron’s LREM movement would “keep their symbols” but their objective is to create a decisive group in the future Parliament and a tool to “stop the nationalistic wave.”
However, on Tuesday, Gielgold launched a withering attack on Verhofstadt saying that “for a long time” his had been “one of the loudest voices” in support of leading candidates - the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process - of European political parties for European elections.
Gielgold said, “He has now changed his position in an attempt to form an electoral alliance with Macron who himself has always opposed the idea of leading candidates as his party did not join any European political party so far.
“Verhofstadt, so far, is one of the Parliament’s most outspoken European federalists.”
Giegold, declared, “Verhofstadt’s rejection of the Spitzenkandidaten process is highly opportunistic.
“He gives up a major strengthening of European democracy only to be able to ally with Macron. This is a sad trade-off on the back of European voters. The Spitzenkandidaten process upgrades European elections by letting voters decide over the next Commission President.
“The Spitzenkandidaten process is strengthening the legitimacy of the European Commission which is deeply needed to counter citizens’ distrust and the allegations of populists. Verhofstadt’s excuse that leading candidates function only with transnational lists cannot convince.”
It is not the first time Verhofstadt has been accused of being opportunistic: a similar criticism was levelled at the former Belgian PM after his attempt to forge an alliance with the EPP after the last European elections nearly five years ago. That bid fell apart, resulting in a grand coalition between ALDE, the EPP and Socialists.
Giegold added, “Five years ago, we had also had Spitzenkandidaten, but no transnational lists. At that time, being one of the Spitzenkandidaten, Verhofstadt was still in favour of the procedure.”
He went on, “He should stop gambling with European democracy. Verhofstadt and Macron need a leading candidate for the European elections. The credibility of Liberals in defending the
European democracy depends on Verhofstadt to keep his word only to elect one of the Spitzenkandidaten as Commission president. Macron wants to keep his cards open for his ongoing negotiations with possible election campaign allies.
“Verhofstadt wants to save his Liberal group by joining Macron’s momentum. Yet, the right of voters to scrutinise any new Commission president beforehand as leading candidate during European elections weights heavier than any party interests.”
Gielgold has also again called for transnational lists, saying, “they would allow leading candidates to be on the ballot paper in every EU member state.
“Moreover, they would allow any EU citizen to run as Spitzenkandidat without the veto right of its head of government.”
The EPP’s opposition to transnational lists, he said, “denies this equality” to voters and also blocks European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager from running as a candidate of the Liberals and Macron, because the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, will not support her candidacy.
Gielgold said, “Verhofstadt and Macron should not take the voters’ rights hostage to break the dominance of Christian-Democrats in deciding on the EU top post. Verhofstadt and Macron need to find their own leading candidate and must uphold voters’ rights to scrutinise anyone who wants to run as Commission President. Voters deserve a real choice between candidates from different political parties.”
He adds, “For voters to have a real choice for the EU top job, Christian-Democrats have to stand by their word that Parliament will elect the leading candidate with the broadest support in Parliament, not automatically the candidate of the single biggest party.
“Verhofstadt and the Liberals needs to present an own leading candidate to be more than a helping hand for the Christian-Democrat candidate.”
Speaking separately at a news conference in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Udo Bullmann, the German leader of the Socialist group in Parliament, told reporters, “I saw the story and what Verhofstadt said. But the following day I also saw that En Marche denied any knowledge of this so it is all very confusing.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Verhofstadt was not immediately available for comment.