Guy Verhofstadt

He is the one European politician almost all Brits love to hate – and he knows it. Guy Verhofstadt, however, gives as good as he gets and visibly enjoys yanking the chains that tie Brexiteers to their grand project. Throwing insults back and forth across the English Channel / La Manche is probably not the best of ways for furthering mutual understanding – it constitutes, in fact, a rather childish pursuit – but that doesn’t deter Europe’s foremost federalist from speaking his mind. If it were up to the former Belgian prime minister, the United States of Europe would be a fact before the clock strikes midnight – in a non-metaphorical way.

Guy Verhofstadt (64), a member of the European Parliament since 2009 and now its point man on Brexit, believes in Europe with a passion and fervour not usually detected in politics. In 2008, as the global financial crisis unfolded, Mr Verhofstadt published a modest didactic tome – The Way Out of the Crisis: How Europe Can Rescue the World – containing a rather big idea: how the setting up of a fiscal transfer union, complete with Eurobonds and other trimmings, can transform a tired old continent into the antechamber of the future. Outside Flanders, the book was not a bestseller.

Guy Verhofstadt does not believe in testing the waters before jumping in – it is all or nothing. Likewise, his approach to the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union is painted in primary colours – simple yet deceptive. Mr Verhofstadt misses no opportunity to remind the British of their “supreme folly” – implying they should best remain in – only to demand the country’s immediate exit in the next breath, of course not before coughing up a hefty exit fee.

Though it is quite refreshing to see a politician so committed to the often uninspiring EU cause, as of late Mr Verhofstadt is not being very helpful by running far ahead of the troops. His frequent lambasting of those who do not fully agree with him convinces few on the need for speed when it comes to forging an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe.

Whilst most continentals fail to understand the British psyche – and are not particularly interested in finding out either – Mr Verhofstadt seems to take Brexit rather personally. Most of his colleagues in the European Parliament just shrug their shoulders – and perhaps roll their eyes – before moving on to matters deemed more pressing.

Not, Mr Verhofstadt however: he won’t let go. That is a problem, of sorts, as the European Parliament must sanction whatever agreement is reached between the UK and the EU27. Without its benediction, no deal can be implemented. Contrary to popular belief, the parliament has considerable bite and no longer rubber stamps whatever the European Commission presents for its consideration.

Three-time prime minister of Belgium – a notoriously difficult country to lead due to its intractable language divisions – Guy Verhofstadt is a magnificently competent political operator: underestimate him at your peril. Whilst vehemently opposed to granting the UK government any sweeteners, Mr Verhofstadt did surprise many with his proposal to grant all UK citizens EU passports upon request to allow them to benefit from the union’s freedom of movement even after their country’s departure. He has repeatedly called on the European Commission to distinguish between the UK government and British citizens, insisting the latter be not deprived of their privilege to live, work, study, and retire anywhere in the union.

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