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7th Dec 2019

Federalist Verhofstadt to join top table in Brexit talks

  • The former Belgian PM in full swing at the EU parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The European Parliament has picked Belgian federalist Guy Verhofstadt to speak for it in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

The decision, announced by EP political chiefs on Wednesday (8 Thursday), prompted a slight dip in the value of the British pound amid speculation that he will take a hard line.

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The 63-year old former Belgian prime minister, who advocates the creation of a US-type federal state in Europe, will join Michel Barnier, a French former EU commissionner, who is to represent the European Commission, and who has a history of antagonism with the City of London.

Didier Seeuws, a younger Belgian official, will represent the EU Council.

An EU source told EUobserver that the two main EP groups, the centre-right EPP and the centre-left S&D, endorsed Verhofstadt, a liberal, because they liked his handling of pre-referendum UK talks.

“He had a good rapport with [former British PM] Cameron during the negotiations on special status. They disagreed on several issues, but they had the same, plain-speaking style”, the source said.

The UK, prior to holding the referendum in June, had negotiated “special” derogations from EU law.

The EU source added that the liberal Alde group was in line for a top job because the EPP and S&D had dominated other high EU posts.

For his part, Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who co-chairs the Green group, said Verhofstadt had been chosen by EP leaders because he was a former PM who knew how the EU Council operated and because he was a “convinced European, even if I disagree with him on other issues".

The Brexit talks are expected to start early next year and to revolve around access to the UK for EU workers and access to the single market for British firms.

The EU exit negotiations, the first in history, are uncharted waters.

They will be dominated by member states, but the EP says it has power of co-decision on the new international treaty that is to govern issues such as EU-UK trade.

It also says it has to give “consent,” a majority vote, on a separate treaty enacting the UK’s EU exit, as well as on a third document - a new edition of the EU treaty with all the references to the UK cut out.

“The European Parliament will need to approve a possible agreement on the conditions for the UK’s departure from the EU”, Verhostadt’s group said on Thursday.

It said he would “help prepare the EP position in the [Brexit] negotiations, in close consultation” with other political chiefs and with relevant committees, such as the constitutional affairs committee.

The EU source said no one knows yet what the Brexit talks will look like.

The contact said initial negotiations are likely to take place in the EU Council building between the 28 sherpas (senior aides) from member states, and a delegation from the EU Council’s legal services.

“The legal services will tell us what’s possible and what’s not possible on technical issues,” the source said.

He said the big questions would be decided at a “higher political level”, with the EU triumvirate - Barnier-Seeuws-Verhofstadt - involved.

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