The EU last year appointed its greatest crusader, Guy Verhofstadt, as one of the negotiators dealing with Brexit. Although the former Belgian Prime Minister and Flemish liberal seems to be one of the most consistent politicians, Belgians — and the little grey cells on which they must rely (think Hercule Poirot) — tend to know better.
In the mid-80’s, Verhofstadt was one of the youngest party chairmen ever. He became Belgium’s budget minister in 1985 at only 32 years of age. But he did not hold the post for long. Because of his Thatcherite views he was considered to be too radical. “He wants to turn Belgium into a desert”, complained a prominent politician. It was during these years that the Flemish press gave him the nickname of ‘Baby Thatcher’. Later, in the coverage of the Iron Lady’s passing, Verhofstadt denied ever having Thatcherite sympathies. A denial that turned out to be exemplary for his political behaviour.
Although his electoral success as a party leader from the late 1980s on, he — and his liberals — had become political loners. The social democrats and the leading Christian Democratic Party had gained a profound dislike of the way he conducted politics. In the early 1990s Verhofstadt re-branded his liberal party to the Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Flemish Liberals and Democrats or VLD). They had become more liberal and more lenient to the demands of the Flemish movement that was striving for a strong devolution of the Belgian state.
In the build-up to his new party he had several meetings with Paul Belien — who now works for the controversial far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders — and with the very liberal Flemish nationalist the late Lode Claes. Although they eventually had no further role in the development of the party they were important for it’s founding. Verhofstadt wrote his famous political book, The Civil Manifesto, in those days. In the end he wrote four of these manifestos.
The first two were quite revolutionary in Belgian politics and acted as a liberating wind for the right-wingers in the Flemish parties. Verhofstadt was trying to reply to an ever more desillusioned electorate that was looking for comfort in the arms of the far-right Vlaams Blok. It’s a strategy that resembles what Nicolas Sarkozy was applying in France. But Verhofstadt wasn’t successful in his attempts to break the power of the ever-ruling Flemish Christian Democrats. Until ‘the events, dear boy’. In 1999 in the middle of the electoral campaign — which the governing party seemed destined to win — a political scandal broke out. It seemed that the food chain had been contaminated — it was the chickens that got misfed with dodgy things — and the government had to take the blame for it. The ruling PM Jean-Luc Dehaene — who was once torpedoed by John Major in his attempt to become chairman of the European Council — lost the vote and stood down. Finally, Guy Verhofstadt got the keys to the Belgian equivalent of 10 Downing Street: Wetstraat 16.
A changing mood
Verhofstadt turned out to be a game-changer — but not in the ways he promised in his civil manifestos. The Flemish movement ended up very disappointed with the ‘light’ version of the devolution reform that he promised — a reform that still would have cost Flemish taxpayers a lot of money and which favoured the French-speaking part of the country. The seed for the later political deadlock in Belgian politics was thus planted.
There was also a radically progressive wind blowing in government social policy: Same-sex marriage was realised, the possibility of euthanasia became liberalised, and a ‘soft approach’ towards marijuana was introduced. But both the federal government as well as Flemish regional governments, led by the Flemish liberals, were big spenders. The tough budgetary discipline formerly espoused by the Christian Democratic Chancellor, Herman Van Rompuy — who would later go on to become the EU’s first President — was abandoned as soon as Verhofstadt got into power.
Verhofstadt’s coalition won the federal elections in 2003. But it was his partners — the socialist parties on both sides of the Belgian language divide — that had gained the most. They made their demands and Verhofstadt granted migrants the right to vote in local elections. This caused a huge rift within his own party and he had to defy party chairman Karel De Gucht (who became an important figure in the subsequent TTIP-negotiations as European Commissioner). Eventually Verhofstadt won this political battle and De Gucht stood down. But the party was by then badly damaged and the prosperous winds that were once Verhofstadt’s started to die.
In 2004, the Belgian Prime Minister and his VLD lost heavily in the regional and European elections. He thus started to look for a European exit. But the gracious solution of getting the job of chairman of the European Commission was blocked by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The Flemish liberals were like a sinking ship and important figures in Verhofstadt’s government were leaving it in rapid succession for other jobs.
In 2007 they received an electoral ‘uppercut’ in the federal elections with the alliance of Christian Democrats and Flemish nationalists. The latter were united in a new party called N-VA. It was ideologically inspired by the earlier civil manifestos written by Verhofstadt — and it has since become the dominant political force in Belgian and Flemish politics today.
But the man who let this genie out of the bottle has since changed. He has distanced himself from his early manifestos. And he has grown a dislike of leading British politicians.
Verhofstadt played an important role in the aftermath of Brexit. With one single Tweet, he gave the Scottish National Party (SNP) some legitimacy in the European Parliament, writing: “It’s wrong that Scotland might be taken out of EU, when it voted to stay. Happy to discuss w. @ NicolaSturgeon next time she’s in Bxl. #EUref.”
It’s worth remembering that the SNP has ties with the Flemish nationalist party N-VA. At the time, prominent figures in that party burst out in laughter when they read Verhofstadt’s Tweet. Was this really the same man who in 2010 claimed in a Flemish newspaper that “identity thinking leads to Auschwitz’s gas chambers’? Once he proclaimed in his second Civil Manifesto that nationalism could be a “liberating energy”. In 2012 he told a Belgian newspaper that N-VA was an extremist party. Two years later he welcomed the N-VA to join his liberal ALDEfaction in the EU parliament so that it would become the second largest. Instead, the Flemish nationalists joined David Cameron’s European Conservatives and Reformists, thereby drowning his hopes of becoming a European commissioner.
Verhofstadt’s road to power and prominence was one marked by numerous U-turns. He is like a windmill when he’s orating in the European parliament. His arms go up and down like a mill’s wicks. And like a mill, he is subject to any way the wind blows — as long as it gains power. It makes one wonder: Who is that Guy, really?