Guy Verhofstadt’s flagrant opportunism in the name of Europe

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt put citizens first during the break-up talks. [European Parliament]

Guy Verhofstadt’s support dragged Italian conservative Antonio Tajani over the line in the European Parliament’s presidential election yesterday (17 January). This is a dark signal for a Europe in crisis. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

Think back to June 2015. Verhofstadt, the leader of the European Parliament’s liberal ALDE group, gave a verbal battering to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who at the time was up to his neck in a battle with his country’s creditors.

The angry former Belgian prime minister delivered a lesson in the tone of an irate schoolmaster: he accused the head of the Greek government of not having produced any meaningful reforms since his arrival in office that January, of having been covertly supported by the extreme right, of trying to circumvent the European Parliament and of not behaving like a true “European” and democrat.

To finish the lesson, Verhofstadt asked Tsipras whether he would prefer to go down in history as an “electoral accident” or a “revolutionary reformer”.

Willing to do anything…

Tsipras will surely go down as neither one nor the other, even if he did end up following the Belgian liberal’s advice.

But in 2017 it is Verhofstadt himself whose legacy is in question.

The run-up to yesterday’s election of a new European Parliament president was hardly the ALDE leader’s finest hour. As his group’s candidate for the presidency, Verhofstadt at first appeared willing to do just about anything to strengthen his position.

He courted Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement, even making a humiliating agreement with the Italian populists to tempt them into the ALDE fold while guaranteeing their freedom to vote as they chose. This unleashed a rebellion within his own ranks, which forced him to retreat and abandon the plans.

Later, according to Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts, he approached the ecologists and the other broadly centre-left parties, hoping to rally their support against the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate Antonio Tajani.

Tajani’s reputation leaves a lot be desired. A confidant of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-journalist-cum-government spokesman was nominated for two terms in the European Commission by the former Italian premier, from 2008 to 2014.

In his position as Vice-President for Industry, Tajani was hardly one of the Barroso Commission’s shining lights. It is easy to see why observers would view the candidacy of such a politician, who played an integral role in José Manuel Barroso’s much-criticised executive, as a bad sign for Europe.

But since the Greens would not give Verhofstadt their backing, the only place left to turn was… Antonio Tajani.

So on Tuesday morning, Verhofstadt abandoned the presidential race and threw in his lot with the former Commissioner. A joint press release explained the move: “Nationalists and populists of all kinds are trying to destroy the union […]. The EPP and ALDE – beyond their ideological differences – have decided to work closely together and to offer a common platform as a starting point for a pro-European cooperation.”

This alliance ultimately led to the election of Tajani to the Parliament’s top job.

Tajani triumphant in historic Parliament presidency vote

Following intense political negotiations, centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate Antonio Tajani was elected this evening (17 January) as president of the European Parliament.

Alliance with Berlusconi and Orbán

The result is quite puzzling. And the excuse of the fight against populism is a surprising one. The electoral ‘transformism’ of the ALDE leader shows an infinitely flexible opportunism and a single-minded drive to turn developments at the European Parliament to his own advantage.

How can someone claim to fight populism one minute and then put on such a disappointing show of European democracy the next? This is exactly the kind of thing that plays into the hands of the populist Eurosceptics Verhofstadt so vocally opposes.

The election of a Berlusconi disciple and former right hand of Barroso is a disaster for the institution, already suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. It is surely not what liberal voters would have had in mind when they went to the ballot box in May 2014.

Where is the Verhofstadt of 2011 who did “not want to govern with Berlusconi and Orbán”? Not only is the controversial Hungarian prime minister still a member of the EPP, now an ally of the liberals, but the Europhile centrists have also crowned a Berlusconi stooge as their president.

Do we have to remind the Belgian ex-PM that Italy’s media mogul former prime minister blazed the trail for Europe’s populists from the political wilderness to the heart of government by going into coalition with the Northern League?

And another fact that has somehow failed to make headlines across the EU: in local elections, Tajani’s party continues to be propped up by the Northern League; a party allied with Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

The ALDE leader did not address either of these issues before throwing his hat in with the EPP.

The moral of the story

The first lesson to take from this Parliament election sounds like the moral of a fable: the schoolmaster of 2015 is now the one being taught a lesson as retribution for his flagrant, low-class opportunism and readiness to get into bed with notorious right-wing populists.

The second neatly sums up the crisis of the EU: it is often the ones that try the hardest to help that end up doing the most harm. And this is something the Union could do without.

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