For the first time in the European elections political groups have put forward candidates for the presidency of the European Commission. The choice will be made after the election of the new Parliament. In this edition of Europe’s choice the focus is on the candidate of the liberal group.
Guy Verhofstadt chairs the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
Born 11 April 1953 in Dendermonde, Belgium, he grew up in the Flanders region. While studying law at the University of Ghent, he became head of the Flemish Liberals Student’s Union
A city councillor in Ghent by 23, his rapid rise continued as he became President of the Flemish liberal party at 29, then an MP in 1985. In the same year he became deputy prime minister and budget minister.
But darker times followed. He lost the presidency of his party, then in opposition. He took a break in Tuscany to, as he said, reflect.
Once dubbed Baby Thatcher, Verhoffstadt tempered his radical liberalism and returned to lead an overhauled Liberal party to victory in 1999, becoming premier of three successive governments.
During this period he developed his passion for European politics, and his European Commission ambitions.
In between campaign trips, we caught up him in Ghent doing one of his favourite pastimes – cycling.
“The European tour is during the week, and the tour of Flanders is at the weekend,” he told us as we drove alongside while he peddled energetically along a cycle path.
Since he was first elected to the European Parliament in 2009, Verhofstadt has fought to increase its weight in relation to that of the European Council.
His staff say his seemingly tireless capacity for work sets an example.
“He’s brought a completely new dynamism to the parliament . Since he arrived he’s politicised the institution much more than it ever was. But we’re always running around him and working 110 percent every day.There’s never a dull moment,” says Neil Corlett, Head of Press and Communication ALDE Group.
It is perhaps as a champion of a federal Europe that Verhofstadt has made his name. He laid out his vision in his book ‘The United States of Europe’ in 2006 and last year co-authored a manifesto for a federal Europe with Daniel Cohn-Bendit of the Greens.
Whether its the Budget, debt, taxation, or energy Verhofstadt wants deeper integration to cover all domains of government.
“We need a much more integrated Europe. And this integration will be the engine to create more jobs and economic growth for years to come.
The solution is really to use more Europe to get out of the crisis!” Verhofstadt says.
“It is only our politicians who don’t have the courage to do it! And as a consequence people fall into disarray; they’re afraid, and they believe the lies of the nationalists. That’s the tragedy of Europe at the moment,” he adds.
Fascinated by Europe’s diverse cultures, he speaks 5 languages , and says he feels at home everywhere on the continent, but has a particular connection to Italy.
Sardinian Maria Landis, runs the kitchens of the Belgian government. It was Verhofstadt, as PM, who first hired her . Now his friend, her risotto with lobster and asparagus is among his favourite dishes.
He’s not a bad cook himself, she says:“Lemon chicken is a speciality of his. So are chips!
“I think he could have been a great chef; because he’s very creative, very curious, and has good taste; that’s important in cooking, but also in politics!
“They say he’s visionary, but it takes vision to have good creativity; and he has that, perhaps sometimes a little too much,” she says.
Through his support for a common socio-economic policy, a European army, Turkish membership of the EU, Verhofstadt has a habit of making waves. .
So, what would his first act as Commission President, a role that’s already evaded him twice?
“It would be to change the working method and directly use the European Commission as a true European government, which takes leadership of operations, which develops a vision and puts legislative packages on the tables of the Parliament and the Council. Precisely to force the states, to force the European Council to take up its responsibilities, which is not the case at the moment.
“What Mr. Barroso does is to first phone Paris and then Berlin;(actually) usually it is the other way – first Berlin, then Paris. And it’s only when he has the green light from those two countries that he dares present something. But this isn’t how we will overcome the crisis!” he says.
For the N-VA Flemish nationalist party’s lead candidate in the European elections Verhofstadt lacks realism.
“His former Dutch liberal colleague Fritz Bolkestein compared Mr Verhofstadt to someone who is barking at the moon . It may be a little bit exaggerated , but I think the image is quite correct.
“Mr Verhofstadt is focusing very much on the very long term issues, and on the European Union on the very long run . People will not go for these long term issues if they see that what is today a problem for them, or what are the problems today are not resolved sufficiently,” he says.
Mathias de Clercq disagrees
He is the grandson of former European Commissioner Willy de Clercq, – Verhofstadt’s greatest political mentor. The Liberal candidate is now a role model himself for Mathias.
“He’s very straight, he’s very full of passion, and he can convince everybody. Although he became older, he really stays as enthusiastic as in the beginning,” says de Clercq.
“He is still a bit naive, but we need that in our society; the belief in reaching goals. And that’s the main thing I appreciate about him.”