Guy Verhofstadt, a serious candidate for Commission president?

  • All of the various European political families are set to determine their “super-heads of list”.
  • Verhofstadt’s declaration was expected.


On Monday evening, Guy Verhofstadt announced live on VRT that he intends to run for the presidency of the European Commission, replacing current incumbent José Manuel Barroso. “Who wouldn’t want the job?” queried the ebullient Flemish former prime minister (VLD), currently head of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group. The candidacy in question is only ever a first step in the overall process, but Guy Verhofstadt’s decision to throw his hat into the ring is nevertheless unsurprising.


The hope of many European parliamentarians is that the next Commission president will be selected from the much vaunted “super-heads of list”. Will that really happen? It is far from a sure thing, because a good number of heads of state and government, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have already made it clear that they will not be bound by any procedure thought up by MEPs.


Why? There are the official reasons, and the not-so-official reasons. On the “official” side, there is the legal aspect: the Treaty of Lisbon does not indicate any other obligation for the European Council other than to “take into account” the European electoral result.


In private, leaders opposed to the idea have even gone as far as to inject some irony into the issue. “Do you think that Belgian viewers will take an interest in a televised debate between, for example, a German candidate and a Finnish or Polish candidate?” mused a senior European figure before the press recently.


Finally, there is the most important argument, the one that no-one is willing to admit: the need for time and space to bargain. This is a well-established practice; its appearance in the Treaty of Lisbon was supposed to offset it with a tinge of democratic legitimacy.


But the trend of traditional bargaining between heads of state has every likelihood of continuing, because aside from the Commission presidency, the leaders of the 28 countries that make up the European Union will also soon have to choose a new president of the European Council, to succeed Herman Van Rompuy, as well as a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a role currently fulfilled by British politician Catherine Ashton. Another task looming over them is filling a new position, that of permanent president of the Eurogroup, which is in the process of becoming even stronger now that it is an operating unit of the EU.


Given that the distribution of these roles is not only a political and geographical balancing act and depends on country size, it is understandable that all 28 leaders are especially keen to give themselves the best possible chance to find a compromise, or, in other words, to bargain.


Over at the European Parliament, on the other hand, MEPs are bracing themselves for the need to legitimize the authority of the next Commission president. The Parliament will have to approve the Commission president, who will be picked by the heads of state and government. “From the moment that the parties launched this ‘European super-heads of lists’ procedure,” says a source at the European Parliament, “I couldn’t see how the Council could avoid choosing from candidates that the Parliament itself had put forward.”


Against this backdrop, does Verhofstadt stand a chance? The ex-Belgian PM’s name had already been floated in 2004 (the word ‘candidacy’ was not used in relation to the post back then), but he fell victim to a veto from the United Kingdom. While the liberal ALDE is the third largest group in the European Parliament – far behind the conservatives and socialists –their lack of electoral clout gives them no chance. Although Guy Verhofstadt’s own chances of taking the helm of the Commission are minimal, his position at the head of the ALDE is potentially unstable. That would appear to be, in itself, a sufficient reason for him to throw himself headlong into this battle.



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