Europe is deeply engaged in a continent-wide battle over its future. Euroskeptic populists are trying to undermine the European Union from within, while those speaking up for a closer bloc, like former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, are doing so louder than ever.
“It’s not a question of more or less Europe. It’s a question of different,” Verhofstadt says speaking to CNN in his spacious Brussels office. “We need a different union because this union will not survive the 21st Century.”
On paper, the 66-year-old is not the sort of person you would expect to hear using such fatalistic language about the European Union’s future.
In the post-Brexit era, Verhofstadt is a held up by Europhiles as a poster boy for the European project.
His style of politics divides opinion. The British Sun newspaper recently described him in an editorial as a “curtain-haired slimeball” and the “most repugnant figure in Brussels.” However, when he recently addressed a group of anti-Brexit protestors in London, he was cheered for saying that in the world of tomorrow, European countries needed to “work together”.
As the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, he has made no secret of his desire for a more integrated bloc where European institutions would have greater power.
“The big problem we have in Europe is the enormous distance between the European dream, shared by more Europeans than ever, and then in practice the European Union, which is absolutely not seen as the translation of the European dream,” he says.
Verhofstadt, known for his often combative oratory, is scathing about the populist movements and parties running on a Euroskeptic platform in this week’s European parliamentary elections.
Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega Nord party, is openly planning to form a large, powerful Euroskeptic bloc – one opposed to European institutions being given more power – following the elections that voters across Europe have previously treated as a protest ballot.
Euroskeptic parties could potentially win up to 35% of seats. And if Salvini succeeds in bringing groups from countries all over the bloc together, a huge gang that was once on the fringes of European politics will be inside the halls of power, able to push for their own version of reform.
“Reform? I don’t call that reform. I call that the kiss of death,” Verhofstadt says of Salvini’s plan for the EU. “Instead of beating it from outside it will die inside.”
While many bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels have been accused of sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring the threats facing the EU, Verhofstadt sees challenges both inside and outside of Europe.
“The world is developing into one not of nation states, but of empires. China is an empire. India is an empire. The US is an empire. We need to create a European Union that is capable of defending our interests,” he says.
And he doesn’t see Europe’s internal and external threats – populism and a changing world order – as unrelated issues.
Nationalist politicians often talk about reclaiming their country’s sovereignty, stripping away centralized power from Brussels.
Verhofstadt says this is the wrong answer to Europe’s challenges and points to the Council – one of the key institutions of the EU – as something that isn’t working in its current form.
The Council is the forum in which national governments decide on European policy. It makes decisions either by qualified majority or unanimity, depending on the issue. This can mean a single member state derailing huge issues because they don’t agree with them.
Verhofstadt says a Europe of nation states, where countries scale back their commitment to the bloc, would only exacerbate these tensions, weakening Europe and placing its destiny in the hands of others.
“It’s Putin, it’s the Chinese leadership, it’s Trump who are going to decide on our way of life, on our standards. Some nationalists say ‘yeah we are against globalization’, but what they are doing is worse,” he says.
“What is missing in the pro-European voice is vision and passion. We cannot convince young people to be pro-European with a bureaucratic and technocratic European Union as it works today.”
It’s a reasonable point. The EU has in some respects become a parody of itself.
It has more institutions than any normal person can name, unelected commissioners who seem remote to citizens and cumbersome bureaucracy that, unless you are on the pay roll, is hard to love.
It’s little wonder that a simple message of “Take Back Control” won out in the 2016 UK Brexit referendum. Pooled sovereignty and federalism lack the romance of national pride.
Verhofstadt wants to re-imagine the “European dream.” In this, he has an ally: France’s President Emmanuel Macron, someone he says is able to stand up to populists but is struggling with his own anti-establishment movement, the “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vest” protesters.
Verhofstadt’s version of a reformed European Union is one that creates a “European Army and European champions” to rival those in China and the US.
That, he says, would offer younger Europeans something more than boring, technocratic tweaks from an out-of-touch political class in Brussels.
Go big or go home.
While there is moderate support for Verhofstadt’s view among fellow Europhiles like Macron, he is seen by many others in Europe as an outlier.
It’s simply a fact that the most prominent issue facing the European Union at the moment is Brexit. It has sucked all the oxygen out of virtually everything else.
Verhofstadt wants Brexit over and done with. He wants to avoid spending the next five years “fighting again over Brexit” instead of “talking about renewal and reform.”
He’s says he’s not been impressed with the UK’s handling of Brexit and points out one of the unavoidable differences between European countries and the Brits.
“Normally, when a country puts an existential question on the table, a cross-party platform would be created to say what is now, based on the decision of the people, the best way forward,” he says.
Building coalitions and cooperating with your political rivals is normal in Europe.
In the UK, the governing Conservative party and Labour are entrenched in a bitter rivalry. Worse, Brexit has divided the internal politics of those two parties, making any kind of compromise near impossible.
“For two years, Brexit has been used as a bullet in a weapon for both sides. That is our feeling. The national interest was never involved – or even trying to find out where the national interest is,” Verhofstadt said.
He says the UK ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement, the mechanism by which it exits the European Union, is the “only way forward” and is not wild about the “eternal discussion” on whether Britain needs a second Brexit referendum.
Nor was he a fan of the EU’s decision to grant the UK a long Brexit extension.
While Verhofstadt has his supporters, the reality staring him and other pro-Europeans in the face is that the Euroskeptics are not going anywhere any time soon.
When anti-EU politicians take their seats in a new parliament (including those in the UK furious at Brexit having not happened) they will be hellbent on causing as much damage as possible.
Europe is at a crossroad. It sometimes looks like it’s the Euroskeptics that are winning the argument.
As leaders of pro-European nations like the Netherland’s Mark Rutte and even members of Germany’s governing party borrow the language of nationalists, it’s easy to believe that the attempt to keep the far right at bay simply normalizes their rhetoric.
Verhofstadt sees things differently. While he doesn’t deny the existence of the anti-EU populists, he believes that when “there is a pro-European candidate against an anti-European candidate, the pro-European wins. That was the case with Macron against Le Pen. That was the case in Austria. That was the case in the Netherlands.”
You could argue that this is a selective reading of history on Verhofstadt’s part and that he is ignoring how those elections actually shook out. But he’s sticking to his optimism.
“When there is a one-to-one fight about what the people want – Europe, or going out of Europe – Europe wins.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of gilets jaunes.