Commission contest on a par with voting for PM, says liberal hopeful

Guy Verhofstadt eyes up presidency saying he can take Europe out of crisis

“We need a voice in Europe who can tackle Euroscepticism,”  says Liberal Democrat party leader Guy Verhofstadt. Photograph:  Benoit Doppagne/Reuters

“We need a voice in Europe who can tackle Euroscepticism,” says Liberal Democrat party leader Guy Verhofstadt. Photograph: Benoit Doppagne/Reuters

Fri, May 9, 2014, 01:00

The race in the European election for the presidency of the European Commission hardly features in the Irish campaign. But Guy Verhofstadt, candidate for the liberal group, says the contest is no different – and no less important – than the election of a prime minister by national parliament.

Verhofstadt, a supremely self-confident former prime minister of Belgium, is an ardent federalist and was famously rejected for the presidency of the commission in 2004 when he ran foul of then British prime minister Tony Blair and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi. “I was blocked,” he says ruefully.

Viable plan
His opponents say he hasn’t a hope this time out. On a one-day dash to Dublin this week, however, Verhofstadt brushes all that aside to claim he is the only person with a viable plan to lead the commission – and Europe – out of the financial crisis.

“We are in the middle of the crisis. We are not out of it. We need a jump forward in European integration to come out of it,” he says. “It’s an indirect election. That’s what we explain in every debate . . . The more seats I have the better chance I have. In most parliamentary elections, the prime minster is never elected directly.”

Fianna Fáil vote
The basic notion is that a vote in Ireland for candidates from Fianna Fáil, which is the liberal group in the European Parliament, would be counted as a vote for Verhofstadt for the commission.

A vote for Fine Gael would translate into a vote for former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party. A Labour vote would translate into support for Socialist candidate Martin Schulz, a German MEP.

The EPP and Socialists always dominate but neither is likely to have a majority. So Verhofstadt has cast himself as a compromise candidate, capable of rallying both centre-right and Socialist votes if Juncker and Schulz cancel each other out. To do that  effectively, the liberals would need about 80 of the 766 seats in the parliament. To do it credibly, they would need more seats than anti-EU parties such as Britain’s UKIP and the National Front in France.

“We need a voice in Europe who can tackle Euroscepticism . . . I have a programme, the programme makes sense that can unite the parliament, it’s a programme of the centre.” Although Verhofstadt’s strident Europeanism is all too much for his opponents, he insists this should be no hindrance . Indeed, he argues that the choice of a non-believer as commission chief would be akin to cardinals electing a non-Catholic as pope.

Central to his plan are swifter moves to finish Europe’s banking union, with a common resolution backed up by more special support from the European Central Bank. Also in the mix are measures to create a single energy market, boost worker mobility between member states and shift the focus of the European budget to the digital economy from agriculture.

Argument
While there’s plenty scope for argument in all of that, it’s not even clear whether EU leaders will accept the writ of parliament in the selection of the next commission president. The simple idea behind an election to succeed José Manuel Barroso is to boost democratic legitimacy. But neither the procedure nor the election itself is set in legal stone.

Still, Verhofstadt insists it would be “unthinkable” for heads of state and government to ignore the parliament. “Will they follow it? For us it’s impossible to go outside the candidates,” he says.

“It’s a normal procedure like in a parliamentary democracy and that is what we are going to do.