No one nowadays understands the Bible. So said sources close to David Davis after he appeared to brand Guy Verhofstadt as the devil.
Davis is Secretary of State for Brexit, while Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister and now an MEP, will act for the European Parliament in the same negotiation, so it sounded as if their talks might get off on the wrong foot, or the wrong cloven hoof.
But what Davis actually said, in response to a question about Verhofstadt’s views from Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was “Get thee behind me Satan”.
The rebuke (taken indeed from the Gospels) was evidently to Blunt, for trying to tempt Davis into an indiscretion. It was not a description of Verhofstadt.
Yet if one looks at the end of the Hansard transcript, one finds Blunt wishing to make sure this is the case, for he asks: “Is that me or Mr Verhofstadt?”
Davis, who is in an ebullient mood, replies: “I will allow you to draw your own conclusion, Chairman.”
For the sake of an amusing reply, the Brexit Secretary had cast doubt on something which should have been perfectly clear.
The joke (if that is the word) sprang from the fact that Verhofstadt is by no means popular among British Eurosceptics. In his running commentary on the aftermath of this summer’s referendum, often delivered via Twitter, Verhofstadt said “Cameron, Johnson and Farage behave like rats fleeing a sinking ship”.
He also asserted, “The more Boris Johnson talks, the more the UK economy crashes.” And he shares the conviction among many Remainers that “The Leave campaign was full of lies”.
Verhofstadt yearns to take a great leap forward to a federal Europe, and vehemently opposes granting a favourable deal to Britain:
““EU governments would be mad to agree to such a deal and I can tell you: the European Parliament will never agree to a deal that ‘de facto’ ends the free movement of people for a decade,while giving away an extra rebate in exchange for all the advantages of the internal market…
“What would stop other countries from asking the same exceptional status? Do we really want Eurosceptics elsewhere in Europe to invoke the British example of ‘having their cake and eating it’?”
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who for many years has reported authoritatively on these matters for the Daily Telegraph, describes Verhofstadt’s appointment as “an act of war by the European Parliament”.
Daniel Hannan, who as a Conservative MEP has observed Verhofstadt speaking in Brussels, agrees that the former Belgian Prime Minister is “vocally anti-British”, breaking the convention in the European Parliament that one generally tries to refrain from criticising an entire country.
But Hannan also says Verhofstadt gives the impression of being “an old man in a hurry”, who like other ageing federalists sees that European federalism “is losing its shamanistic power over the young people, even in their own countries”.
Verhofstadt is in fact only 63, and to me at least he looks about ten years younger. A Dutch journalist described him to me as “the man with the thick hair and the even thicker skin”.
For Verhofstadt addresses the Parliament with admirable energy and clarity, and enjoys playing to the gallery, and making himself the centre of attention, by being recklessly rude about his opponents, in a manner more in accordance with British ideas of free speech than with Belgian attempts at consensus-building.
With Liberal self-righteousness, but also Liberal irresponsibility, he gave every encouragement to the Ukrainian resistance to Vladimir Putin. He is proud to have been banned from Russia by Putin.
Verhofstadt revels in adversarial politics; wants to heighten the argument rather than allow it to vanish in a mush of platitudes. So he does not pretend the European Union in its present form is worthy of admiration, or fit to survive.
He speaks with the force, but also the naivety, of a true believer. As he put it this summer in Time magazine, just after the referendum result was known:
“We should forge a strong European federation to replace the weak, incapacitated confederation of member states we have today. A Europe of 28—soon 27—member states can never be efficiently governed by unanimity. It means we move forward at the pace of the slowest member state and drag ourselves from standstill to standstill. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our own European Founding Fathers wrote as early as 1953 a federal constitution for Europe, inspired by the American political structure. They envisioned a Europe with a united defence force, a common foreign policy, a small but powerful European government and a full-fledged European treasury with own resources (instead of the current European budget of 1% of GDP funded by national contributions ).
“Although the 70 representatives approved the federal constitution for Europe at the convention, it was torpedoed by the French National Assembly a year later in 1954. This French ‘political accident’ has held us back for decades. It is time to set the record straight and follow the American example of 1787 at the convention of Philadelphia and to make a federal giant leap.
“That is the opportunity in this Brexit crisis. The possibility to forge an EU that is capable of solving crises instead of letting them fester.”
This is fantasy. As Larry Siedentop pointed out, in Democracy in Europe (published in 2000), “American federalism drew on established habits and attitudes”, a point noted by de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (published in two volumes,1835 and 1840).
And Siedentop (who nevertheless believes federalism is the right goal for Europe) points to an additional difference between Europe now and America in 1787:
“Before their revolt the American colonies had never enjoyed complete sovereignty. Although they had enjoyed very wide de facto autonomy, they had also been subject to the British Crown. That recollection of a common subjection, as well as the habits of association springing from it, contributed to the sense of a common need for political union in Philadelphia in 1787. There was tacit agreement among the delegates that some functions of the British Crown, especially those to do with foreign policy and military matters, were only temporarily in abeyance – waiting, so to speak, for a central authority to take them over again. In that sense, what might be called the ghost of the former Imperial government was present throughout the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.”
How Verhofstadt would reply to this point, I do not know, but would be interested to hear. The ghosts in Europe are of a more difficult kind than George III: a point which Boris Johnson got into trouble for making during the referendum campaign.
Verhofstadt was born in Dendermonde, where the River Dender joins the Scheldt, on 11 April 1953. When the Germans violated Belgian neutrality in 1914, they treated civilians as badly as combatants (so liable to be shot or taken prisoner), and destroyed the medieval centre of Dendermonde, including the 14th-century town hall and belfry, an event commemorated two years ago as a “martyrdom”.
In his youth Verhofstadt studied law at Ghent, where he was President of the Liberal Flemish Students’ Union, and in 1985 he became Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium under Wilfried Martens. He espoused with enthusiasm the free-market ideas of Hayek, and was nicknamed “Baby Thatcher”, though the caricaturists preferred to draw him as a rabbit, because of his teeth.
In the early 1990s he created a new Flemish Liberal party, which he hoped would carry him to the summit of Belgian politics, but which was instead defeated at the polls. At this moment of crisis, he withdrew for over a year to Tuscany.
He returned with centrist convictions which proved more widely acceptable, and from 1999 to 2008 he served as Prime Minister. His finest hour as a European statesman came at the Nice summit in 2000, when food, clean shirts and patience had all run out, but he helped shame the other heads of government into agreement by telling them the smaller nations could not be treated as cattle.
But Verhofstadt’s hopes of becoming President of the European Commission were repeatedly dashed, for he could make himself extraordinarily annoying to people whose support would have been helpful, such as Romano Prodi, President of the Commission from 1999-2004. In 2004, Verhofstadt gained the support of France and Germany, but found his way blocked by Britain, under Tony Blair, and by Italy. Manuel Barroso, the former Prime Minister of Portugal, got the job, and in 2009 held off a renewed challenge from Verhofstadt.
In 2014, Verhofstadt was beaten by Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg. As Gideon Rachman pointed out in the Financial Times, the three main candidates – Juncker, Verhofstadt and Martin Schulz – were all traditional European federalists, brought up in the “inner core of the inner core” of the EU – the Benelux countries, or in Schulz’s case just over the border in Aachen.
Schulz, who since 2012 has served as President of the European Parliament, has now arranged, without a plenary vote, for Verhofstadt to represent the parliament in the Brexit negotiations. It seems most unlikely that any of these three men – Juncker, Verhofstadt and Schulz – will have the faintest idea how to cope with the rise of national feeling within the member states, except by trying to crush it.
Before the British voted to leave, Verhofstadt said there must be “No more silly, incomprehensible and indefensible opt-outs” from EU rules, and added, with his customary eagerness to pick a fight, “Dear editors of the Daily Mail, please take note”.
He added that “National cherry-picking is what got us into trouble in the first place: We are now choking on the stones.”
One cannot help wondering whether his anger and sorrow are really about the divided state of Belgium. Geert Bourgeois, Prime Minister of Flanders, the prosperous northern half of that country, last month proposed a North Sea Union which would include Britain and other countries round its coasts, and would cushion the shock of Brexit.
Verhofstadt is certainly not a devil. He is an imp, with a propensity to overplay whatever cards he has in his hand. His demand for a Europe constructed like the United States is so impracticable that it represents a greater threat to the EU than to Brexit.