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21st Jul 2019

Liberals' Verhofstadt launches EU parliament bid

  • Verhofstadt (r), dropped hints that he wanted Schulz's (c) job as soon as Schulz said he would go (Photo: European Parliament)

Belgian Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt has joined the race for the European Parliament presidency.

"I want to dedicate all my passion and all my skills to Europe and to its parliament," he said in a video posted on social networks on Friday (6 January).

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He is the seventh candidate to throw his hat into the ring, with voting to take place on 17 January after the incumbent, Martin Schulz, decided to return to national politics in Germany.

Verhofstadt, who was recently named as the EU parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said that Europe needed "visionaries, bridge builders and compromise-seekers," and that he wanted “to be one of them".

The 63-year old politician said that his nine-year term as prime minister of Belgium in the early 2000's "taught [him] that compromise is not a dirty word. Not a necessary evil, but a way to be creative".

The two frontrunners - Antonio Tajani from the centre-right EPP group, and Gianni Pittella, for the centre-left S&D - represent the two largest political powers.

Other candidates include Helga Stevens for the conservative ECR group, Eleonora Forenza for the radical left GUE/NGL, and Jean Lambert for the Greens.

Blocking Tajani

Tajani and Pittella both lack an absolute majority, which is needed to win in the first three rounds of voting.

In the fourth round, a plurality of votes is enough to be elected.

Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal Alde group, the fourth largest in the house, with 68 MEPs, believes he could win in the fourth round.

His bid did not come as a surprise, after he dropped hints that he wanted the job as soon as Schulz announced his departure.

Verhoftsadt is positioning himself as the candidate who will "break with the uninspired grand coalition" between the EPP and the S&D, which traditionally share the presidency and align positions on most EU laws.

A source in the Alde group told EUobserver that Verhofstadt could win if the S&D’s Pittella fell by the wayside and if other MEPs swung to Alde in order to block the EPP’s Tajani, who has a chequered profile.

'Too provocative'

Tajani used to be Italy’s EU commissioner, in the era of Silvio Berlusconi, a former Italian prime minister who was convicted of fraud.

Tajani has in the past faced flak for his conservative views on women’s rights.

The 63-year old politician, who used to hold the commission’s transport and industry portfolio, has also faced questions on his role in the Dieselgate scandal.

The Alde source said that Verhofstadt was betting on a free outcome from a secret ballot instead of “backroom deals” with other groups.

Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian politician who co-chairs the Green group, said there would be some coordination, however.

He told EUobserver that "all the democratic groups outside the grand coalition [EPP and S&D],“ would talk next week to try agree a common candidate for the final rounds of voting.

Verhofstadt, a federalist with liberal economic views, might not appeal to all MEPs in the Green group, the far-left GUE-NGL group, or in the anti-federalist ECR.

Verhofstadt was "too federalist and too provocative" to be elected, one Liberal MEP, who spoke anonymously, told EUobserver last month. "Many people like him, but many people hate him”, the MEP added.

Despite Verhofstadt’s claim to offer a break from the grand coalition, many MEPs also see him as being part of it because of Alde’s past deals with the EPP and S&D.

'No European superstate'

Verhofstadt was a “liberal Schulz" one Green MEP, who also spoke anonymously, said. "He wants to boost his own profile but he's not ready to fight with the [European] Commission and the [EU] Council,” the EU deputy added.

In order to dispel criticism, Verhofstadt sent a manifesto to MEPs on Friday, in which he said that "the Union of the future will not be a European superstate".

"It is in fact the opposite,” he said. "A more effective and more integrated Union will better protect our cherished European diversity: in languages, in cultures, in traditions, in ways of life. The parliament must be at the forefront of this."

He said that parliament "must be able to control the executive [the commission] in a real way and on a permanent basis”.

He said the EU assembly "must acquire full budgetary oversight" and upgrade its inquiry powers.

He also said that he wanted to reform parliament governance, with more transparency and fairer gender balance.

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