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Friday 19 October 2018

Opinion: Watch out for the Belgian Guy as Brexit end-game begins to unfold

Downing on politics...

Guy Verhofstadt. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Guy Verhofstadt. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

Some of you will already know who Guy Verhofstadt is. Most of the rest of us will know a lot more about him over the coming six months, as he could well become an important figure in deciding Ireland's fate in a post-Brexit world.

He was Prime Minister of Belgium for nine years (1999-2008), leading three separate governments, all of which means he knows more than a thing or three about the art of the complex political deal. These days he is the head of the European Parliament's Liberal grouping, which includes Fianna Fáil, and more importantly he is also the assembly's key person on Brexit.

Many in Belgium, like Mr Verhofstadt, are extremely keen on the European Union becoming more and more integrated. Cynics are partly right when they say it is a hedge against the potential splitting of that country into separate French and Flemish-speaking state-lets.

But beware too much cynicism here. Enthusiasm for the EU is also part of the Belgian people's profound suffering across the last century, with two invasions, mass killings, and decades of poverty and hunger.

The experience has also left the 10 million Belgian people kindly disposed to the Britain who twice came to their aid. It is part of the reason English is widely spoken across that land of many delights.

Guy Verhofstadt has also taken the trouble to visit Ireland north and south and he has addressed TDs and senators at Leinster House. He understands the real Irish dilemma about the potential "hard border" after Brexit finally kicks following the transition period in December 2021.

After his visit to Belfast last October he made a heart-felt intervention during discussions at the European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg. "I can tell you it was a shock to go to Belfast, because the reality is that the problems are not over" he said.

For the last 25 years, the European Parliament has been acquiring more power and influence and plays a big role in shaping and vetoing EU law. The parliament must sign off on the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement which, all going right, should be cleared by an EU leaders' summit in Brussels on October 19 next.

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Unsurprisingly, as a heavy-hitter in a directly elected parliament whose members face an election in May 2019, his major focus so far has been on reciprocal citizens' rights. The staging agreement last December guaranteed reciprocal rights on work, welfare and pensions, for the 3m EU citizens in the UK, and the 1.2m citizens living elsewhere in the EU.

Bureaucracy

This week, Mr Verhofstadt said the focus now must be on how that is implemented. An overly bureaucratic system could in practise strangle the spirit of the deal.

But he remains keenly aware of the Irish border issue. At the weekend he spoke of it to the prestigious Brussels magazine, Politico. "Northern Ireland will be a difficult thing and maybe the most difficult item," he said.

Much has been made of Britain's "on-off" acceptance of the so-called "backstop" which would effectively see the North mimic EU trade rules and product standards. It is likely this may not be resolved until next October's endgame.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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