Verhofstadt for Next EU Commission President?

The Czech Republic’s leading business newspaper, Hospodárské noviny (yes, of all sources) has tipped the successor to Romano Prodi as President of the European Commission when the present Commission’s term of office expires at the end of this year: Guy Verhofstadt, currently Belgian prime minister. Described in the article’s lead as a “Euro-optimist and centralist,” Verhofstadt is said to have strong support for the job from both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. (It helps that Verhofstadt, from the Dutch-speaking half of Belgium, also speaks fluent French. I’m not aware whether he speaks German.) In days gone by those two endorsements would have been all that it took to get the job, even in the teeth of what the article calls British “reluctance” towards him and even American distrust. But the recent addition since then of ten new member-states, who have shown themselves unwilling simply to blindly fall in line with the dictates of the Franco-German EU “motor,” may turn out to change this dynamic – although the article also reports that the new member-states have all uniformly had good experiences with Verhofstadt.

The HN article then appropriately delves into Verhofstadt’s Belgian CV, which is certainly impressive. During his four years to date as prime minister, he has brought the Belgian governmental budget back in balance, reduced its debt, and modernized the economy (despite setbacks such as the bankruptcy in 2001 of the Belgian national air carrier Sabena – although you can better argue that an event such as that is proof of a “modernized” economy). He has also managed to push through changes in Belgian law making that country second only to the Netherlands in its liberal approach to marriage, drugs, and euthanasia – which some would call a good thing (certainly most Netherlanders), some would not. He also played a prominent role in the EU’s reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks, as Belgium was then occupying the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.


On the debit side of his ledger, he is known for his free-market views – which still often don’t go down well in this continent – having been dubbed “Baby Thatcher” in his earliest political days, and indeed his political base is in the Flemish liberal party (VLD – Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten). And he was notorious to some as the leading driver behind what has apparently come to be known (at least to HN) as the “praline summit” in Brussels in late April of last year (covered by EuroSavant) of the EU’s Iraq rejectionist front (France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg) to consider ways of building a European defense capability beyond NATO. So maybe he’s indeed rather too close to the German and French governments (and to the Luxemburgeois government, too, but for a Belgian premier that’s ex oficio). HN also alertly picks up another key fact: Verhofstadt is said to rather look like Harry Potter’s big brother (and in the article’s title he’s called Belgický ulicník, or “the Belgian street-rascal”). But that’s an advantage more than anything else, as the Dutch prime minister Jan Pieter Balkenende definitely looks like Harry Potter himself. If we can keep this trend going of having heads-of-government looking like famous movie characters, it can only improve ordinary citizens’ engagement with national politics.

Strangely, I could find nothing about Verhofstadt’s lead in the race for the Commission presidency in the Belgian on-line press, in Dutch or French. Maybe that’s warning-sign about the credibility of the HN story – surely it is the Belgian press which would be the first to know about something like this involving their own prime minister, and not the Czechs? But the end-of-year deadline for coming up with a new Commission President is drawing near, and it’s never too early to start the search: to succeed, any candidate must be approved by all the member-states (i.e. approved by the European Council) and must also get a vote-of-confidence from the European Parliament.

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