Verhofstadt ‘is barking at the moon’, says fellow liberal Bolkestein

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The Dutch liberal politician and former EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein has launched a scathing attack against Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the liberal and pro-European ALDE group in the European Parliament, highlighting tensions within the liberal family ahead of next year's EU elections.

Verhofstadt and his fellow European federalist supporters, are a greater danger to the European Union than eurosceptics, Bolkestein said in a recent interview.

The liberal leader and his federalist backers are “barking at the moon” when discussing the future of the European Union, the former EU commissioner argued.

“Verhofstadt thinks you can abolish the nation state. That’s rubbish, and his eurofederalism is rubbish too,” Bolkestein told Dutch public radio NOS on Saturday 9 November.

“People don’t want [a federal Europe]. So he should stop talking about it.”

Bolkestein concurred with earlier remarks made by Mark Verheijen, the liberal party VVD’s spokesperson on European issues, that “Europhiles like Martin Schulz or Verhofstadt are a greater danger to Europe than eurosceptics or anti-Europe populists”.

Last Saturday (16 November), EU commissioner Neelie Kroes objected to the remarks of her Dutch party colleagues, telling the Belgian paper De Morgen that Verhofstadt "carries the support of the VVD" to become the liberal candidate for the EU commission presidency.

Kroes accused Verheijen and Bolkestein of populism. "Everyone has a bad day, but these comments were complete mistakes," the commissioner for the digital agenda added.

Bolkestein's remarks came just days before the visit of French far-right politician Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders on Wednesday (13 November) in The Hague, where the two discussed plans to set up a cooperation between eurosceptics towards the EU elections in May 2014.

'Frankenstein directive'

Frits Bolkestein is the former president of the Dutch liberal party VVD. He was single market Commissioner from 1999 to 2004 and was the author of the EU services directive, a controversial proposal which many blamed for inviting social dumping.

The directive, nicknamed the "Frankenstein directive" by opponents, was eventually watered down but was widely credited for leading to the rejection of the proposed EU constitution in France in a 2005 referendum.

Bolkestein was the first former European Commissioner to publicly back a breakup of the euro, saying in the Dutch paper Algemeen Dagblad that the Netherlands had to exit the euro as quickly as possible. "The monetary union has totally failed. The euro turned out to be a sleeping pill which made Europe doze off instead of thinking about our competitiveness," he said.

Over the past years, Dutch parties have changed their stance towards a critical position on European integration. This summer, the Dutch government, led by liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, released a vision statement accompanied by a letter to parliament stating the “era of an ever closer union is over”.

ALDE looking for frontrunner

Bolkestein's comments come as the ALDE political family is gearing up to choose its candidate to spearhead the next European election.

On 27-28 November, ALDE is holding a party congress in London to adopt its common manifesto for the elections. After the congress, national member parties can nominate candidates to lead the liberal EU elections campaign across Europe and serve as candidate for the Commission presidency. Nominations close on 20 December and ALDE will select its frontrunner at an electoral congress on 1 February 2014.

So far, both Verhofstadt and current Commissioner for economic and monetary affairs Olli Rehn have expressed their interest to take on the role. Even if his candidacy might provoke opposition by the Dutch VVD and other member parties, a high-level source within the ALDE party told EURACTIV that he is “almost certain” that Verhofstadt will win the party’s internal election race.

Commissioner Kroes on Saturday said that Verhofstadt "has every chance to become the next Commission president", applauding the Belgian liberal for his service record in EU politics.

If European political groups agree on a single Commission president candidate to propose to the European Council, it is unlikely that this candidate will come from ALDE. The group is currently the third largest party in Parliament with 11.4% of seats, and European political groups are expected to choose a candidate from either the centre-right EPP or the socialist PES party.

Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician from Dutch-speaking Flanders, is known for his federalist position on the European Union. In 2005, he published a book on ‘The United States of Europe’, and he is one of the driving forces behind the Spinelli Group of federalist MEPs launched in 2010.

In 2004, Verhofstadt was suggested to succeed Romani Prodi, then Commission president, but his candidacy was rejected by the European Council, largely because of British concerns over his federalist stance.

The European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014. The Lisbon Treaty states that the European Parliament shall elect the Commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.

The expected rise of eurosceptic, populist parties across European member states has put the debate on more or less European integration at the top of the agenda.

The liberal party ALDE’s leader Verhofstadt is one of the EU’s most ardent federalist advocates. But the party also has national member parties such as the Dutch VVD or the British LibDem’s in their ranks, who take a more critical approach of the EU institutions.

  • 28-30 Nov.: Liberal election manifesto adopted at ALDE Congress in London
  • 19-20 Dec.: ALDE pre-summit meeting and closing of nominations for candidates
  • 1 Febr. 2014: ALDE electoral congress in Brussels, selecting their candidate
  • 8 Mar. 2014: Kick-off of EU elections campaign
  • 22-25 May 2014: European Parliament elections in all 28 member states

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