Who would have thought it possible, these days, to find a European federalist with a sense of optimism?
But Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician who leads the liberal group in the European Parliament (EP), is precisely that.
“I’m more optimistic than I was a few months ago,” he told EUobserver in an interview.
Verhofstadt is one of the few EU politicians who openly calls for the creation of a single superstate. His EP group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), is the fourth most important force in the assembly.
He is optimistic because, he said, the Brexit vote will, either way lead to new talks on the EU treaty.
“The whole discussion and referendum around British membership is an opportunity,” he said.
“Why? Because if it is a No, we need to start negotiations. That’s article 50 in the [EU] treaty. If it is a Yes, we agreed with [British prime minister] Cameron to translate the special status for Britain into the treaty … and he promised not to make obstacles for the deepening of the union.”
The “special status” is Cameron’s new deal on British opt-outs from various aspects of EU integration, such as the euro or closer political union.
No matter what the result of the British referendum on 23 June, it will lead to changes in the European architecture, Verhofstadt said.
Either the British stay in the EU but let the rest of it become a real union, he explained. Or it exits the EU, letting it become a real union.
The institutions, stupid
Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium, a federal state, knows how difficult that type of structure is to manage.
Belgium, five years ago, set a world record by having no government for 19 months because Dutch and French speaking parties could not agree a coalition.
He said the EU is in a period of multiple crises – in the areas of values, the economy, migration and terrorism and security. He said it also suffered from geopolitical weakness.
“People are falling back to nationalist and populist recipes, because they see a European Union that does not function, so, automatically, then you believe those who are saying that it is better to go back to the past and to the old nation states of the last century, because that worked”, he said.
For Verhofstadt, the various crises stem from one problem – the dysfunctional nature of EU institutions.
“The drama and the tragedy of all this is that what we have today is not a union … it is a confederation of nation states that is still based on unanimity rules and that cannot function,” he said.
“Europe does not have institutions capable of dealing with today’s challenges. It’s very simple,” he said.
He said the Brexit debate had been foreseen by the EU’s “founding fathers”, the post-WWII politicians who launched the project.
“They said we might have full membership and associated membership. It was foreseen in their constitution: A [draft] treaty [for a political community] in 1953. So they had already the solution for [these] problems”, Verhofstadt said.
“Nation states don’t want to give up their power. It’s a transfer of power we are talking about essentially and they don’t want to do it”.
He said that if the UK had a “special status” or “associated membership” then pro-EU capitals could continue “deepening the union”.
“That is the reason that I am more optimistic now.”
He noted that it usually takes the EU “10 years of problems” before it finds solution, giving the so-called banking union as an example.
“In the beginning [German chancellor] Merkel said: ‘No’. But then, in 2011, suddenly there was fear that Spanish banks could fall. So, they [the Germans] said: ‘OK, now we need a banking union. As fast as possible.’ And in two to three years we made a banking union that had been impossible for 10 to 15 years before”, he said.
He predicted that refugee relocation quotas would be the next example.
“It will come. The question is how much damage we need before finally saying: ‘Yes, Yes. There’s no other way’.”
Germany must do more
With the Brexit vote marking a crossroads in European history, Vefhofstadt said German leadership is needed more than ever.
“I think it is important that Germany involves itself more in European affairs. It is fundamental now,” said the liberal leader.
“Let’s be honest, the union does not exist … and we have to make a fundamental shift to a federal union”, he said.
“That is now on the table. We are talking about a separate budget and treasury for the eurozone, a real defence community. We need to make this shift and we need Germany for that”.