The Brief – Guy’s World

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [Shutterstock]

A 35-year political career will have given Guy Verhofstadt a thick skin. And he is going to need it.

The former Belgian prime minister and Liberal MEP is the hero, or villain, of the BBC documentary ‘Brexit behind closed doors’, which aired on Wednesday night.

Lode Desmet’s film follows the Brexit process and Verhofstadt’s role as coordinator for the European Parliament. It is painful viewing because nobody emerges well. It’s hard to think why Verhofstadt agreed to give Desmet such access – it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

There’s plenty for both sides to cringe about.

The incompetence and weakness of Theresa May and David Davis are spelt out in technicolour. Davis’s remarks on the Irish border question, reported by Verhofstadt’s aide, Guillaume McLoughlin, highlight the UK’s blithe and casual approach to an “intractable” issue that has all but derailed Brexit.

But that’s not news, at least not to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or watched TV in the last three years.

The film captures the day-to-day mundanity and sheer pointlessness of most political activity – the endless meetings and drafting of resolutions and declarations destined to be swiftly forgotten.

German Christian Democrat Elmar Brok has a cameo as the pantomime villain, demanding to have joint meetings with Michel Barnier, and insisting that it would be “tactically wrong” for the EU to do anything to help May’s government. “We have to do nothing…they (the British) have to come to us,” he says.

Meanwhile, Verhofstadt’s Italian vineyard and Aston Martin conform to the stereotypes many Brits (Eurosceptics and others) have of the European Parliament ‘gravy train’. His aides swoon over him and refer to him as ‘Hoff’ on camera.

May’s Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins’ query “can I become a Belgian citizen after all this because I don’t think I will return?” will increase the enmity of Conservative Brexiteers against him.

The film has, needless to say, provoked an angry response from Brexiteers. British Conservatives have complained about ‘sneering Brussels bureaucrats’. With characteristic bellicosity, the Sun has described Verhofstadt as a “curtain-haired slimeball”, one of the nicer things to have ever been said about him.

The truth is that Verhofstadt’s Steering Group is but a minor player in the Brexit process, with no formal role in the negotiations. The heavy lifting has been and will continue to be done by Michel Barnier and Sabine Weyand.

“He (Verhofstadt) thinks he is, but he is only the Parliament’s spokesman and doesn’t run the negotiations,” Charles Grant, director of the Centre of European Reform, told UK MPs on Wednesday.

That Desmet’s Brexit film should be so painful is no surprise. Brexit is, after all, a story of decline: of the UK’s newly discovered capacity for self-inflicted humiliation, and the EU contriving, through neglect, to lose one of its biggest and wealthiest member states.

“It can’t be true”, Verhofstadt repeats as he watches the June 2016 referendum results come in. This attitude on both sides of the Remain/Leave divide is as prevalent now as it was three years ago. That, sadly, is a testament to this tale of political failure on a monumental scale. And on both sides of the Channel.

The Roundup

By Alexandra Brzozowski

9 May is Europe Day! And while some contemplate about their connection to the construction, we should all have our minds on one duty to fulfil this month.

In this spirit, EU27 leaders signed off on broad-brush ‘ten commitments’ for Europe’s next five years, as they adopted a vague Sibiu Declaration during the opening stages of an informal summit dedicated to the bloc’s future.

Europe’s future lies in the hands of its regions and cities, writes President of the European Committee of the Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz.

It is customary for the European Parliament to produce a video to incite people to go vote in the EU elections. The shocking and emotional video has gone viral.

Printing ballot papers for EU elections seems to be a major obstacle for the French.

The UK was not supposed to contest this month’s European elections, but Theresa May’s government finally bowed to the inevitable.

Meanwhile, crucial decisions on EU military project participation and funds have been delayed – also due to the stalemate over Brexit.

EU proposals to establish export restrictions on spyware are being held back by Germany, which has adopted an ambiguous stance on the matter. ‘We are continuing to sell European spyware to dictators,’ an MEP told EURACTIV.

Athens has lashed out against Facebook, after the social media platform decided to partner with a “controversial” fact-checker in the country – and is now prepared to raise the issue at an EU level.

At a meeting of the Arctic Council, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo refused to identify global warming as a threat, instead hailing an oil rush as sea ice melts.

The US will not sign up to a trade deal with the EU unless agriculture is included, US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland warned, ahead of another round of transatlantic talks.

Iran, meanwhile, will abandon two of its commitments under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The announcement comes exactly one year after the Trump administration pulled out of the landmark accord.

Look out for…

International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is to hold hearings over Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crew. 

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters