Verhofstadt: rebel with a cause

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Series Details Vol.7, No.6, 8.2.01, p13
Publication Date 08/02/2001
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Date: 08/02/01

Despite being one of the EU's most fervent supporters, Belgium's free-thinking premier Guy Verhofstadt believes the Union is in urgent need of renewal. His vision of Europe's future is radical and not short on controversy, as Gareth Harding discovers

BELGIAN Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt likes to see himself as the James Dean of European politics. Under the heading "a rebellious teenager", the Liberal leader's official web site describes how the young Fleming was a "little rascal and a playful child", but studied just enough to succeed.

Like the American film icon, Verhofstadt had his name up in lights at a very young age, becoming a local councillor at 23, leader of his party at 29 and deputy prime minister at 32.

But if Verhofstadt is a rebel, he is certainly not a 'rebel without a cause'. In a wide-ranging interview about European issues, the energetic premier brims with the sort of ideas that would turn the hair of many of his European Council colleagues even greyer.

Like many leaders born after World War II, Verhofstadt believes that the European project has failed to move with the times and is in urgent need of renewal. As well as creating the conditions for enlargement of the Union to central and eastern Europe, he thinks the most important decision taken at the Nice summit last December was to launch a real debate about the future direction of the EU.

"Until now we have seen Europe as an evolutionary process, but when we have geographically reunified the European continent I think it is absolutely necessary to have a final debate about what the EU is for, what competences it has and what type of institutions it needs," he explains.

Verhofstadt believes that the current debate between pro and anti-Europeans risks tearing the EU project apart if it is allowed to drag on indefinitely. "We cannot continue with a Union where on the one side you have people who say we need a more integrated Europe and on the other you have Eurosceptics who say there is too much bureaucracy and too little transparency and democracy," he says. "When you have such different views about the EU you need a new consensus on the future of Europe."

A first step will be taken at the Laeken summit at the end of the six-month Belgian presidency in December. Verhofstadt wants EU leaders to sign up to a declaration setting out the timetable and methods for the next intergovernmental conference (IGC) on treaty reform, which is due to be held in 2004.

But he also believes that there should be no repeat of the horse-trading that took place between Union leaders in Nice. "Certainly for the debate about the future of Europe, to go directly towards a classical IGC approach is not a good way to tackle the problem," says Verhofstadt. Instead, the 47-year old would like to see the groundwork done by a convention - a body of MPs, MEPs and government representatives, similar to the one that drew up the Charter of Fundamental Rights last year.

It is clear that the undignified deal-making that went on in Nice still weighs heavily on Verhofstadt. Although he refuses to comment on the French presidency's handling of the four-day-long negotiations, his remarks about the way candidate countries were treated when the reweighting of votes was being discussed speaks volumes about his attitude towards Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac.

"I wanted something that was logical," he shrugs, referring to the difference in the number of votes offered to similar-sized western and eastern European countries. "When you ask the new member states to enter the EU you have to give them the same treatment as everybody."

Verhofstadt also denies that France's attempt to win over Belgium by offering it the right to host all Union summits had anything to do with the final deal in the small hours of 11 December. The prime minister insists that he never asked for the favour and that the French offer was made hours before the talks entered their final stage.

Whereas the Nice menu was limited to the leftovers of the Amsterdam Treaty, Verhofstadt wants the debate about the future of Europe to have the "largest possible agenda", including "things we find impossible to talk about today".

In keeping with his free-thinking, rebellious image, the premier throws a few controversial ideas into the pot to start the debate about the future of Europe cooking.

He believes that the president of the European Commission should be directly elected by the people, that the European Parliament should have the right of legislative initiative in areas it has competence for, that the Council of Ministers should evolve into the second chamber of the EU alongside the assembly and that the tradition of rotating presidencies should be scrapped once the Union has more than 27 members.

But most controversial of all, perhaps, is his call for a new Euro-tax to be directly-levied across the Union. He sees this as the "best solution" to avoid the endless arguments among member states over how much each pays and each gets back.

Despite being one of the Union's most fervent supporters, Verhofstadt is not afraid to criticise the way the bloc has evolved over the past half-century. Indeed, he argues that the European debate can only be won by admitting that the Eurosceptics are right when they deride the EU's lack of efficiency, transparency and democracy.

So does this mean that the Belgian premier is in favour of opening up Council of Ministers' meetings to the public? "Why not?" he replies. "Maybe it could even be in real time on the Internet."

Verhofstadt's blunt analysis of the problems facing the EU at the turn of the century is refreshing compared to the tired excuses trotted out by the Union's most blinkered apologists. But what are his solutions?

The Liberal leader says that more inter-governmentalism is not the answer to the EU's problems, but that instead "you have to reinvent the communitarian method by defining what are the competences of the EU and what are the competences of the member states".

This argument will be at the heart of the debate about the future of Europe. But Verhofstadt believes that it should not be used as an excuse to roll back the powers the EU has spent 50 years amassing. "It is not a one-way street," he says. "The traffic goes both ways."

This does not stop him from asking whether the Commission should really be involved in setting strict economic guidelines and EU-wide product norms. But in other fields he believes that the Union should gain more, not less powers.

Foreign and security policy is one of those areas. "Can you imagine the US with 50 different armies wondering how it could intervene in Kosovo?" he asks. "It's impossible to believe, but that's what we're doing in practice."

In a recent speech, Verhofstadt said it was time for EU leaders to come off the fence and define their "ultimate goal" for the Union. When asked about his long-term vision, the Belgian premier talks of a Union that is as bound together by its common foreign and defence policy as it by its economic and monetary policy. "Only at that moment can you say that Europe is a superpower not a superstate," he says, borrowing liberally from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Verhofstadt is fond of quoting the German poet Friedrich Hölderin, who wrote that "man is a god when he dreams, but a beggar when he thinks". From July, when Belgium takes over the EU presidency, Verhofstadt will clearly have to devote more time to thinking than dreaming.

His goals for Belgium's presidency are to advance the debate about the EU's future, take steps towards a common EU asylum and immigration policy, prepare for the introduction of the euro early next January, keep a steady hand on the enlargement process and bring forward the Union's social agenda.

Having observed France's stint at the EU helm from close quarters, Verhofstadt is under no illusions about the task ahead.

"I can imagine its very easy to criticise somebody but much more difficult to make your own presidency a success," he says, adding with classic understatement, "I don't think it's a very easy job."

Major interview with the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt.

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