Verhofstadt Surrenders to Political Opportunism

The presidential elections in the European Parliament last week have shown low instincts and political intrigues at their best. Opportunism and the strive for power have prevailed over political integrity and the adherence to values and ideas. Guy Verhofstadt has best illustrated how quickly one can fall prey to the little intrigues and deals that animate life in politics. The man who has strongly endeavoured to become known as the fiercest defender of democratic values and pro-European ideals has not shied away from playing the card of political opportunism repeatedly over the last weeks. He ended up striking a deal with groups who stand for the opposite of those values which he claims to represents. Nevertheless, he presented it as a great victory, and I am afraid that his public image will suffer little in the long-term. As many others who believe in European unity and solidarity, I am very disappointed by his tactical behaviour.

Here is, in brief, what happened:

– On 6 January, Guy Verhofstadt officially announced his candidacy, after having declared void the agreement he had co-signed with the two largest groups in 2014. It was the agreement that the presidency of the Parliament should go to EPP at mid-term. He then offered a deal to Gianni Pitella, leader of the Socialist and Democrats group (S&D), to form an alliance in which he would support a more social Europe. The crux of the deal: Pitella would have to step back and the socialists would support Verhofstadt as a presidential candidate. Pitella angrily refused, declaring that his party would not support any under-the-table deal.

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– The next surprising move came when Guy Verhofstadt offered an alliance to the Italian populist and eurosceptical Cinque Stelle Movement (M5S). Under the leadership of Beppe Grillo, this movement had created the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in the European Parliament, together with Nigel Farage’s UKIP. But now that UKIP had achieved their main goal, the M5S was looking for a new alliance in order to remain influential in the European Parliament, as Beppe Grillo explained in his blog. ALDE would have become the third biggest group in the Parliament, which explains how Verhofstadt in the context of the election campaign could deviate from his ‚hard line‘ on euroscepticals. The offer was greeted with much approval in the M5S but was quickly rebuffed from ALDE. At that moment, Verhofstadt lost the support from his group; his political career reached a bottom low and there was a feeling that his group was about to sack him as a group leader very soon.

Funny incidence in the aftermath: At the POLITICO debate between presidential candidates, Verhofstadt was asked what he thought when the deal failed. He very frankly answered: „I was thinking ’shit’“.

– In a surprising move on Tuesday 17 January, Verhofstadt steps back as a candidate and declares that he had reached a deal with the EPP. This deal, published by Weber in a tweet (see below), promises a deep reflection on institutional reforms, a strong commitment to democracy and the rule of law and an important involvement of the European Parliament in the Brexit negotiations.

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– In the end, the EPP candidate Tajani won the election with the support of ALDE. However, this would not have been possible without winning the support of the group of European Conservatists and Reformists (ECR). This means that Verhofstadt has eventually given in to a deal with a group including the UK conservatives and Polish PiS – the parties responsible for Brexit and who are accused of committing violations of rule of law in Poland. Given this constellation, the deal with EPP cannot be expected to have much meaning.

But what has Verhofstadt won in the end? Doesn’t it seem that the deal has backfired on him?

Not at all. It was no surprise that the last allies with whom the EPP and ALDE could win the elections would be the ECR. Verhofstadt must have known from the beginning on in what alliance he would end up. But given the hard failure of his first two attempts (first, the left; then M5S), his group was close to giving him his coup de grâce. Having secured a deal with the winning party of the elections, this was obviously not possible anymore. What is more, this deal procured ALDE a couple of important positions that will allow the group to have a strong influence on the political agenda of the house. Most importantly, Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish MEP from ALDE, took over the presidency of the Conference of Committee Chairs, which decides on the political orientation of the Parliament.

It is unlikely that the deal will prevent Verhofstadt from continuing to publically adhere to a pro-European course and to uphold the same values as before. However, he has proven to be unreliable for the socialist and the left, who now feel betrayed by his chameleonic political moves. Having to look for allies among the groups at the other side of the political spectrum, he will struggle to find the same support for his ideals, and his words can hardly be taken as more than empty promises. The good news for the Socialists, the Greens and the Left is that they can recover the battleground that ALDE will loose and try to gather the support of all those who still believe in unity and solidarity in a strong European Union.

Written by Laurin Berresheim, 2016 Graduates

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