Verhofstadt leads Liberals towards 'more Europe'
At a rally to launch the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party's campaign for the EU elections last night (15 April), former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt attacked EU leaders for failing to agree on a common recovery plan to tackle the global crisis and called on fellow liberals to seek to "move Europe forward".
"Confronted with the most devastating crisis in 80 years, the EU did not provide the European leadership so badly needed to deal with the current crisis," Verhofstadt told hundreds of Liberal democrats gathered in Brussels.
"We don't need 27 national recovery plans, we need one European recovery plan as ambitious as the one of [US] President [Barack] Obama's," he added, arguing that it was only thanks to the euro and the strict management of the European Central Bank that the Union was able to navigate the economic storm .
Verhofstadt, who is running in the June European elections as head of the Flemish Open VLD list, explained his decision to stand thus: "In the nine years I spent in the European Council, I never once heard the words 'European interest'."
The crucial question in these upcoming elections, Verhofstadt told other liberal candidates, will be whether member states come closer to one another "in a single EU" or whether they stand apart.
"Since the previous EU elections, the Union has gone into a dark forest of institutional standstill and political defeat. We have lost five years, and we cannot afford to wait any longer," he said, referring to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and deadlocked reform of the EU institutions.
"We could even abandon the Treaty if we approve the one single article to abolish the unanimity rule in the European Union," the former Belgian PM stated.
Verhofstadt is considered to be the frontrunner to succeed Graham Watson as the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group in the European Parliament. Watson, who has announced his intention to step down from the post after the June elections, has launched his own campaign to become president of the EU assembly, saying he will return to the backbenches.
"For the next five years, I want to push Europe forward for the sake of freedom and democracy," announced a bold Verhofstadt to an appreciative crowd of liberal candidates.
The former prime minister said he will campaign to defeat Euroscepticism. Not just conventional Eurosceptics, but also those who sit in the Socialist and conservative ranks, whom he dubbed "silent Eurosceptics".
Verhofstadt told his audience that "these are the times for the European Union to move forward, mobilising its financial, economic and commercial powers into a single effort to save our destiny, to rally our most creative forces and certainly not to disperse them, to unite and not to divide".
Guy Verhofstadt was prime minister of Belgium for almost nine years, until he was ousted by voters in national elections in June 2007. But he was asked to stay on for a few months more because the conservatives - who had won in the poll - proved unable to form a coalition. He stepped down in March 2008 when Belgium's political parties managed to form a shaky government, which later collapsed.
For the past year, Verhofstadt has largely remained behind the scenes. Following the outbreak of the economic crisis, he published an analysis with the Bertelsmann Stiftung, proposing three ways out of the mess (EurActiv 14/11/08).
The former Belgian prime minister is expected to present his latest book before the end of the month, and will launch his own election campaign on 3 May in Leuven.