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 challenge of new technologies for road safety
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By Alexandra Brzozowski
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]