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Guy Verhofstadt – Brussels’ media-savvy provocateur

The British public have always struggled with the various institutions of the European Union. The Leave campaign used the fact that few people can name the five presidents as an illustration of the turgid, unrepresentative bureaucracy the UK should vote to cast off.

So when Guy Verhofstadt, the vocal and combative former Prime Minister of Belgium, was appointed as the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, there was some confusion about his role and how it fits into the Brussels Brexit machinery. Even more so when Verhofstadt, a skilled media operator, began making some of the most provocative comments we have seen from any EU leader.

Most recently, Verhofstadt has claimed that some UK citizens could be allowed to keep EU citizenship after Brexit, and that the exit bill for leaving the organisation could be as high as €600 billion – ten times the amount that is most commonly suggested. None of this is the official position of the European Union, let alone the European Parliament, which he represents. But in the absence of Brexit news during Theresa May’s ‘no running commentary’ phase, these comments were given significant airtime.

Verhofstadt is at home with controversy. He has claimed that ‘the Leave campaign was full of lies’ and posited that ‘the more Boris Johnson talks, the more the UK economy crashes.’ He is also a committed federalist who has been clear ‘that no deal the UK can achieve will be better than the advantages of full EU membership’. This has all helped to make him into a bogeyman figure for pro-Brexit commentators. The Daily Telegraph called his appointment ‘an act of war by the European Parliament.’

But, to put it plainly, Verhofstadt has no formal role in the Brexit negotiations.

The Parliament must eventually ratify the final deal agreed with the UK but the substantive conversations about money, trade, borders and judicial systems will be conducted by representatives of the Commission and to the satisfaction of the Council.

Verhofstadt has a right to receive regular information about the negotiations and will represent the Parliament to ensure that any deal is acceptable to MEPs. However, the more prominent litmus test for the UK’s exit package will be whether it can achieve unanimous agreement among the other 27 Council members.

This is not to say Verhofstadt is without influence. The three-time candidate for President of the Commission is a very well established European statesman with experience (and a dislike) of British ‘cherry picking’. He was in the room for David Cameron’s ill-fated renegotiation towards the end of 2015, and he heads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe within the European Parliament.

This does mean, though, that businesses in the UK should treat his interventions with caution – and it is important to understand that early on in the process.

Once Article 50 has been triggered and negotiations begin in earnest, the formal negotiating teams on both sides will be limited in what they can say publicly. Brexit might have started with a referendum, but neither side want the final deal to be determined by public opinion.

In this vacuum, relatively unrestrained figures like Verhofstadt in Brussels, or Hillary Benn and Iain Duncan Smith in Westminster, will be the most prominent in the media.

But for those looking to follow the negotiation closely it is important not to be distracted by the loudest voices.

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