POLITICO: If there’s one member of the European Parliament who is thriving on the Brexit process (rather than mourning it, or popping Champagne bottles) it’s Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in Parliament, and the institution’s Brexit coordinator.
Put simply, this role gives Verhofstadt what he loves and uses most effectively — a platform and megaphone — without the formal burden of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and national leaders.
The issue giving Verhofstadt the most traction is post-Brexit citizens’ rights. At first, he threw ideas at the wall to see if any would stick. (Associate citizenship of the EU, anyone?) Halfway through the British withdrawal negotiations, his work has settled into promoting a maximalist view of citizens’ rights for both British citizens and those from the EU27, and highlighting embarrassing decisions taken by the U.K. government in the cases of individual EU citizens seeking to formalize their U.K. status.
The next staging post is inviting the U.K. Home Office to present to the European Parliament their plan for ensuring “the procedure is an easy procedure and not a bureaucratic nightmare” for EU27 citizens seeking the “settled status” Theresa May is offering them.
Like many others, Verhofstadt thinks Ireland will be the most difficult issue to address, and he clings to the December 2017 agreement that Northern Ireland would maintain “regulatory alignment” with the Republic of Ireland if no other plan can be agreed on.
The strategic input that may bear the most Brexit fruit for Verhofstadt is his push for the EU and the U.K. to sign an “association agreement” to formalize their whole future relationship.
The main advantage is “you establish one governance of the relationship” — a streamlining that is not possible if the relationship is managed by parallel trade, security and other agreements.
Verhofstadt says he wants to avoid the “Swiss nightmare.” He complains that Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is governed by more than 100 agreements, while an association agreement with the U.K. — as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova now have with the EU — would “take into account the red lines on the U.K. side and at the same time apply the principles of the European Union.”
The clock is ticking. By October, Verhofstadt says, “we need a concept, a vision” even if the full relationship takes years to finalize. Then there would be 26 months from October until the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, 2020 to finalize the agreement.
Verhofstadt says he’ll be sad on the day less than a year from now that Britain leaves the EU. He says the EU still needs to learn lessons from Brexit and undertake major reforms, praising Frech President Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech. Could Macron link up with ALDE? Verhofstadt isn’t biting. “That’s for 2019,” he says.
Guy Verhofstadt spoke to POLITICO News Editor Andrew Gray.