In April, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic prime minister, visited the European Parliament to promote his “Stop Brussels” campaign — a nationwide household survey aimed at drumming up support for the Hungarian government’s resistance of European immigration policy. Following Orban’s speech to the assembly, in which he argued his government was simply “formulating criticism because we want to correct mistakes,” Guy Verhofstadt, his trademark middle-parted bangs brushing his forehead, stood to deliver his rebuttal. “I don’t know if you remember the first time that we met,” he told Orban. “In that hotel in Budapest, that was in December 1989.”
Verhofstadt, a member of the European Parliament and president of its caucus of liberal parties, proceeded to describe how Orban, in that earlier meeting, had tried to solicit Europe’s help in his struggle to bring democracy to his then-communist country. Denouncing Orban’s recent authoritarian turn, Verhofstadt told him, “I see [today] a sort of modern-day version of old communist Hungary. Economic protectionism, excessive nationalism, the surge of an illiberal state. And you see enemies everywhere of the Hungarian state.… It’s like Stalin or Brezhnev [is] back.”
For Verhofstadt, devotion to the European Union is more than a platitude — it’s a fighting faith. That was true when he was prime minister of Belgium in the early 2000s, a time when closer European integration seemed likely. Now, with Euroskepticism rising across the continent, Verhofstadt, as Zselyke Csaky of Freedom House puts it, has emerged as an unapologetic defender of Europe’s values — from the rule of law to support for the weak and vulnerable.
Verhofstadt owes his prominence partly to his talent as a showman. He is a “brilliant speaker, which is quite rare in Europe,” Csaky says. At a time when many of Europe’s most charismatic politicians, such as Orban and Britain’s Nigel Farage, are using their powers for illiberal ends, she adds, “he’s one of the very few positive voices for liberalism.”
Verhofstadt’s opening salvo in 2017 took the form of a book he published in January, Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union, which made the case for remaking the EU as a federal government, rather than a collection of sovereign member states. Verhofstadt has also backed up his reflective words with calls to action. In July, he urged the president of Poland to veto a bill that was widely seen as a ploy to put the power to appoint judges in the hands of the ruling party and warned that Warsaw risked losing its place in the union if the measure went through. “The European Parliament made it clear earlier this week that these new laws are incompatible with EU Membership and would irredeemably weaken Poland’s future place in the West,” he said. (The Polish president did end up vetoing the bill, a move Verhofstadt applauded on Twitter.)
Since September 2016, Verhofstadt has also assumed the role of the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator — another post he has used to defend the EU’s interests and, in the process, further define them. In arguing that access to the single market comes only with acceptance of the free movement of citizens, for example, Verhofstadt declared, even as certain European nation-states railed against migration, that, for him, freedom of movement remains a European value.
Critics such as Carnegie Europe’s Pierre Vimont argue that some of the reforms Verhofstadt is pushing are outdated. His vision of a deeply integrated “United States of Europe,” Vimont says, made sense a decade ago — that is, prior to the financial crisis and the rise of populism. But today, “people are talking about a more flexible Europe,” Vimont says. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, recently suggested shifting responsibility for a range of policymaking areas — from regional development to public health — back to individual member states. “Promotion of a federal Europe is not exactly the name of the game in town today,” Vimont explains.
Though Verhofstadt’s ability to influence may be waning, it has not entirely dimmed. After months of stressing the importance of a Brexit deal that protects the rights of EU nationals, Verhofstadt and Brexit Secretary David Davis apparently spoke about creating associate citizenship to allow visa-free working rights, a move that could let Britons remain, in a way, European, undoing some of the potential damage of the island’s divorce from the continent (much to the chagrin of some Leavers).
More broadly, at a time when most European liberals are on the defensive, Verhofstadt proudly serves as a reminder of the idealism that helped create the EU in the first place — including the commitment, in its founding treaty, to an “ever closer union.”
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
After Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, insulted the European Parliament this summer, Verhofstadt posted an Oscar Wilde quote on Twitter: “Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities.” The quote was accompanied by a winky-face emoji.