He may qualify as what one’s nanny would have termed “a scruffy-looking object” and he hasn’t seen a barber in 15 years, but former Belgian premier Guy Maurice Marie Louise Verhofstadt, who is routinely mistaken for a rough sleeper by visitors to the European parliament, is surely the most far-sighted politician operating anywhere today. He is already working on a scheme to fast-track Britain’s re-entry into the European Union after Brexit is completed.
It is believed Verhofstadt’s estimate of when Britain’s volte-face would occur is somewhere between the third and eighth day after exiting the EU, when the horror of conditions outside that benevolent federation would drive disillusioned Britons to seek shelter within the warm womb of Brussels, protected by the reassuring prescriptions of the acquis communautaire. Verhofstadt’s attitude to the EU is similar to that of medieval Chinese mandarins who believed that outside the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom all was barbarism.
What made Guy Verhofstadt the ardent federalist fruitcake that he is can only be surmised. Driven from early youth by the ambition to become the most famous Belgian since Hercule Poirot, it may have been his perception of how happily the experiment of confining two nations, Flanders and Wallonia, within one border had worked out that converted him to the federalist faith.
As for his pronouncedly anti-British attitudes, they may derive from a feeling of resentment shared by many of his compatriots at the humiliating part Britain played in extracting Belgium from a previous project of European integration – the one that collapsed so spectacularly in 1945. What is certain is that his antipathy to Britain has been intensified by close exposure in the European parliament to Nigel Farage. Previously, Verhofstadt had been the unchallenged exponent of the barbed insult, his preferred form of political dialogue.
The arrival in Brussels of Farage (cf. his welcome into office of EU president Herman Van Rompuy: “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”) signalled a new kid on the bloc who could effortlessly out-insult Verhofstadt. Thenceforth Verhofstadt was reduced to smirking sardonically and making inane comments during Farage’s speeches. The culmination – game, set and match – came with Farage’s post-referendum victory speech in the European parliament, when federalists who had spent years grinning and mocking Britain were reduced to impotent despair. It was believed Verhofstadt had been tearing his hair for three days, but with a coiffure like his it was impossible to tell.
Verhofstadt’s record speaks for itself. In February 2016, for example, in Nostradamus mode, he prophesied: “[British citizens] are not so stupid to give up [EU membership]… which is economically important for them… and secondly… geopolitically, British citizens know very well that Britain without the EU is in fact a dwarf on the world level.” So, not like mighty Belgium, then. Following the failure of his forecast, on 23 June 2016, Verhofstadt became the leading exponent of the doctrine that Britain must be punished. Last week he told Al Jazeera English that “you can never have outside the European Union a better status than as member of the European Union”.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Last December Verhofstadt, as representative of the European parliament in Brexit negotiations, pounced upon a highly imaginative proposal by fellow fruitcake Charles Goerens MEP to offer Britons an individual opt-in to EU citizenship. This transparent piece of mischief-making would allow the 48 per cent of Britons who are (or were) Remainers to retain EU citizenship and vote in EU elections, effectively clawing back almost half of British citizens into the jurisdiction of Brussels. Please do not mock the unimaginable taxation, constitutional and other problems this would provoke. It could be a first-class arrangement, provided the UK government imposed a condition that such opted-in citizens must spend a minimum of 365 days a year within EU territory.
Yet there was more. Last week Verhofstadt unveiled Baldrick’s Cunning Plan B. This was his historic offer to facilitate the readmission of Britain to the EU after its departure, which would have the advantage over Plan A of recovering 100 per cent, rather than 48 per cent, of British citizens for Brussels: “They can always reintroduce a request for membership of the European Union.” He then went even further, offering to accelerate the readmission process: “Certainly, we have enough experience to make it a little bit a faster process than what is normal.”
That is nothing if not magnanimous, considering the distress Britain has caused Brussels: the door is open to Britannia, the Prodigal Daughter; calves are already being fatted, under CAP regulations of course. Why would we be surprised? Guy Verhofstadt was doing things bigly when Donald Trump was unknown beyond the readership of Hoteliers’ and Inn Keepers’ Weekly. Trump is much on Verhofstadt’s prodigious mind at the moment.
This week, in a speech at Chatham House (where else?), Verhofstadt identified Trump as one of three threats to the existence of the EU, along with radicalised Islam and Vladimir Putin. Just who introduced radicalised Islam into the EU he absent-mindedly failed to specify. Verhofstadt’s declaration of war on Trump, however, presages a prospective duel between the two most idiosyncratic coiffures on the planet, with Boris Johnson, another object of Verhofstadt’s hostility, sitting on the substitutes’ bench.
Yet we must not ignore the most significant aspect of Guy Verhofstadt’s dramatic offer to fast-track Britain’s readmission to the EU: he acknowledges that Brexit is going to happen. That puts him ahead of many fantasists in Brussels who still imagine Brexit can be stopped. That they are more deluded than Verhofstadt is a startling testimony to the flimsy grip on reality of the Brussels nomenklatura. Bring on Article 50, if only to reconnect Eurocrats with the real world.