Verhofstadt will step down as Brexit boss if he wins European Parliament presidency

Guy Verhofstadt and Tim Farron [James Crisp]

Guy Verhofstadt will decide whether to run for European Parliament president next week, he confirmed today (7 December), a choice which could lead to him stepping down as the institution’s chief Brexit negotiator.

Speaking at a joint press conference with British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Verhofstadt said his ALDE group had given him a mandate to run for the Parliament presidency.

If he runs and wins, euractiv.com understands Verhofstadt will step down as the Parliament’s Brexit pointman. He does not believe one man can do both jobs.

The former Belgian prime minister will face competition for the job from other MEPs, including Socialist & Democrats chief Gianni Pittella, if he wants to take over from Martin Schulz.

Schulz has confirmed he will not seek a third term as president and will fight next year’s German elections for the socialist SPD.

Verhofstadt told reporters that “reciprocity” would be central to any negotiations on the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU.

But he warned that curbs on the free movement of people could not be combined with Single Market membership.

“We will not undo the EU, we will not destroy it, we will not destroy the Single Market and we will not undo the four freedoms,” he told reporters.

“There will be no flexibility by the EU [on the four freedoms which includes freedom of movement].”

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Second UK referendum?

Verhofstadt held a meeting with Farron, who leads the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Despite a recent by-election victory, the Lib Dems have just nine Westminster MPs.

Farron has called for another UK referendum on the terms of Brexit. “The British people voted for departure in June but they did not vote for destination,” he said in Brussels.

“The terms of the deal should be put to a referendum and on that paper, should be an option for the British people to remain in the EU if they don’t like that deal.”

Farron was forced to rush back from Brussels to London for a surprise vote called by UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

The vote is to back up her timetable for Brexit. May has promised to trigger Article 50, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU, by the end of March 2017.

Farron said that he believed that Article 50 should be reversible but admitted his talks with Verhofstadt had not clarified whether that was possible.

“My personal view is that if the political will is there on both side of the Channel, it should be,” he said.

Red, white and blue Brexit

May yesterday called for a “red, white and blue” Brexit, a reference to the colours of the British flag.

Asked about the call, Verhofstadt joked, “They are French colours, aren’t they?”

Farron said, “Theresa May’s choice of language is a reminder of two things. Sometimes nationalists will try to own the flag and identity of their country and that is always very dangerous.

“She says meaningless things like ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ because she doesn’t have the foggiest clue of what Brexit means.”

“I think Theresa May is basically a decent, straightforward person who is basically a prisoner of the nationalist, protectionist right that has taken over her party.”

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