Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament's Chief Brexit Negotiator HARDtalk

Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament's Chief Brexit Negotiator

Stephen Sackur speaks to Belgium's former prime minister and current MEP Guy Verhofstadt, an EU politician who'll be at the heart of the complex negotiations over a Brexit deal.

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Welcome to HARDtalk, I am Stephen Sackur. Just how ugly is Britain's


divorce from the EU going to be, and how damaging for the unhappy couple?


As British MPs debate the formal triggering of the effort says, my


guest is an EU politician who will be at the heart of the complex


negotiations over a Brexit deal. Belgium's former Prime Minister and


current MEP Guy Verhofstadt has warned Britain to expect no favours


as it heads for the expert, but how confrontational is he prepared to


be? Guy Verhofstadt, welcome to HARDtalk. I want to talk about


Brexit with you but I don't want to start with the detail, I want to


start with the contest. When the British public voted for Brexit on


June 23, 2016 Barack Obama was president of the United States. Now


the White House is occupied by Donald Trump. To what extent do you


think this fundamental shift in global politics, the most important


power in the world after all, how important is that as a change


context for Brexit? I think it gives an opportunity for the European side


to show and to work on more unity, because lets be honest, what Trump


has said since now in a few days and weeks is very hostile towards Europe


and he is saying openly that he thinks that Europe could


disintegrate further. He thinks more European members of the EU will


follow Britain out of the door and he thinks it is a good thing. He


thinks it is a good thing to have a disintegrated European Union while I


think it is quite the opposite. In fact the interest of the Americans


isn't in a disintegrated Europe. The interest in America is to have a


very united European ally. You can only walk on two legs. Trump needs


an American lake and a European leg. Whatever your sceptical view of


Donald Trump as president and as an individual, the fact is the European


Union needs to be closely allied with the United States of America,


it is a pillar of European security policy. That is what he is putting


in danger. With respect, so are you. Some of the things you have said are


actually extraordinary. You have said, you said this yesterday, I am


quoting you, "Under the enormous political influence of Trump's


political adviser Stephen Bannon, he sent people to Berlin and Paris to


prepare the ground for similar referendum as that seen in Britain."


Yes, exactly. Well, what evidence, you have set essentially he is


taking active steps to undermine the European Union. Stephen Bannon,


everyone knows it is an extreme right-wing newspaper he is


promoting. In fact, extreme right-wing radical views. It is not


the Drum Administration. You are saying hostile things about this. I


am surprised you have said it is not the Trump administration. Mr Bannon


has been appointed as a member of the National Security Council of the


US. Even outside... You said something that is happening at a


news website. I think it is maybe not the Trump administration, but Mr


Stephen Bannon, the special adviser of Donald Trump. We can discuss the


influence of Mr Bannon on Mr Trump, what I see is what Mr Trump is




His quotes have been very clear. So I yours. I hope to be clear. That is


why I am in politics. Normally you have the politics of politicians may


be here who are trying to escape the question. IMO statements try never


to escape the question. Yes, lets think about your choice of words. It


makes it boring, maybe. It makes it fascinating. My view, you say, is we


have a third front undermining the EU and that is Donald Trump. It is a


word I am coming back to, hostility. You are downright hostile to what...


I am not saying I am not hostile. I am only seeing and hearing what Mr


Trump is saying. OK, let me is plain maybe. I think we have first of all


the treachery in Europe and a radical Islam, jihadists, secondly


we have a threat by Putin, the autocrat in the Kremlin who tries to


divide Europe, already years from now, and now we have an American


president who is not longer seeing the American unity, the American


unity as a pillar for his foreign policy. And he is saying openly that


he hopes for a disintegration of the European Union. So I think we are


very much alone. I think we are for the moment in an existential moment


for the European Union and I hope that my response to this is that


only European unity can be the answer. I am mindful you have just


written this book... That is my book about it. Europe's Last Chance, why


the European states, the subtitle, must form a European Union.


Ironically it is a phrase from the American Constitution. Yes, exactly.


It will be difficult right now to persuade Europeans that they should


regard as a model the federal United States of America, but that is


obviously... It is about Donald Trump now. Donald Trump is the same


as the American institutions. What I have seen is America after the


financial crisis was capable to react immediately to the financial


crisis. The cleaning up of the banks, the investment programme,


quantitative easing. Well, if I look to Europe, we are not a union, in


fact. What we are is a loose confederation of nationstates still


based on unanimity and we are always acting too little too late, for


example, in the financial crisis, in migration... So this book is even


more Eurosceptic than all the Eurosceptic books that have been


published in the United Kingdom. You think the formulation doesn't work.


It cannot survive. You made an interesting point about the


importance of nationstates. What Donald Trump is, at a validly a


self-confessed American nationalists, America first is his


message and that is a nationalists message, it is echoed across Europe


in different nationstates where politicians are winning with a


nationalists message -- avowedly. It is not echoed. It is the opposite.


It was first born in Europe. Nationalism has been born in Europe.


Nationalism has not been bought outside Europe. More than that, I


think it is a tricky thing which is happening. That is that an American


president is bidding on more nationalism in Europe. You know what


it means, it is not nationalists based on values, it is nationalism


based on ethnicity. And what nationalism has done in the last 100


years in Europe, we all know it! 20 million victims, all of this is


based on nationalism. So an American President thinking, European unity


is not necessary, let's go back to national identity, ideas of


nationalism. That is playing with fire in Europe. This is not America.


This is Europe. We have the Holocaust, we had... Well, you


can... I think it is a fair argument. You can cite the events of


the 1930s and 1940s at me but let's stick with what happened today. Yes,


but it can come back. Let's look at the context of Brexit. I come back


to the basic point about the situation today in Europe. You have


just seem to reason in the White House with Donald Trump talking


about the state fast alliance between Britain and Europe. You've


heard Donald Trump saying that he is going to seek a very quick trade


deal with Britain. Talking in the most positive terms about Britain


post Brexit. It weakens your hand as an EU negotiator, does it not, that


Britain is now looking at history close relationship with Donald


Trump. I am not reasoning in those terms because I know that the


interest of the UK is more in Europe than in the US. You know the


figures. You know the figures. 44% of the exports of Britain goes to


the continent, to Europe. Only 12% goes to the US. So whatever trade


agreement is made between the US and the UK, the main interest of the


British industry, the British companies, workers and citizens sits


in Europe. It is in Europe. And so these negotiations will be very


important. And I am very open about it. I think that fairness is the


basic principle we need to apply in these negotiations. So when Theresa


May says, alongside Donald Trump, that, as you, she said to Donald, as


you renew your nation, we renew ours, the opportunity is here to


renew the special relationship, the post EU Britain and Trump's America


will lead again, your response is? My response was yesterday industry


is wonderful, I think, I have seen thousands and thousands of people


not agree with this -- in the street is wonderful. I don't agree in the


rhetorical or the narrative of Trump. I think it is devastating.


Also for the American economy. Protectionism, that is also part of


his narrative, how you can make an agreement between the UK, which is


an open society who believes in trade, I think, and on the other


hand an American president who is seeing every trade deficit with


whatever country as a threat. And there is a trade deficit from the US


towards the UK. So, good luck with it. I think it is more interesting


for the UK authorities to work together on a fair partnership with


the European Union because that is the biggest market for the British


industry. And I want to tease out what you mean by a fair partnership


in a moment but before we get to the details on more specific point which


I think arises out of what we see in the United States and what we heard


from Theresa May and that is a question about security. We will get


to economics. On security, you know as well as I do that Britain has


been a linchpin of Europeans of security, the armed forces,


intelligence services are superior to most in Europe, if you talk to


people in Germany, Poland, the Baltic republic, they say we need a


close security relationship with Britain come what may, whether


Brexit happens or not. That is also my point. I think we have to discuss


not only the economic partnership between the UK and European Union.


It will be necessary, besides that also, to talk about internal and


external security. What I don't want - it is not my position... Leverage


to the UK. In a minute. It is what I want to say. I don't want a


trade-off between the economic discussion we will do and on the


other hand the question of internal- external security. I don't think we


can make a trade deal between... Germany has already indicated...


Yes, but let's be honest the important thing to do on the


security issue from the European side is to create a European defence


union as fast as possible. You know the figures. If you don't have


Britain it would devalue... You know the figures, 4% we spend on


military. We are only capable to do 10%- 12% of the operations of the


American army. I am no mathematician. I am a lawyer. I know


it means, these figures, we are three or four times less effective.


And why are we less effective first remark we don't have a European


defence community. We dedicate everything 28 times between the 28


member states. I think this whole discussion on security, internal and


external, is a good chance to create finally what we needed to already do


decades ago, that is to create a European defence union. Right,


well... That is also in the book. Let's get to the nitty-gritty of


negotiating a complex deal with the UK honest departure from the


European Union. Just very quickfire practical questions. You said


reasonably you thought getting a trade deal in the two years


timeframe was impossible. You stick to that? I think it is impossible.


Everybody knows it is impossible. They don't think it is impossible in


London. If you speak with ministers they think it is entirely possible.


It is 40 - 50 month. It is not two years. At the end of the process,


before 2018, we need a consent procedure in the European Parliament


because it has to give the green light for the final agreement. So we


are going to start at the end of May, beginning of June, that gives


us a timeframe of 14 or 15 months. What can you do in this timeframe? I


think a withdrawal agreement is the first thing to do. Not an easy thing


I can tell you. To put it in common parlance it is the divorce


agreement. For the relationship it is the divorce. Then you have to


define the new relationship in general terms. There is debate about


whether the sets of negotiations, one on the divorce arrangements and


one on the new relationship. Take the treaty, Article 50 is clear. It


says, first of all, start with your withdrawal agreement in the light of


the framework of the future relationship. So you need to have an


idea, not more than that, about your To continue... For example, there is


an FTA, it will take eight years. How many years in your opinion? I


think the whole period of transition and the period of transition will be


two years. Besides the two years, we have the 14 or 15 months I'm talking


about, you will need a whole transition period to conclude what


will be the final agreement with the UK. That's a realistic timeframe.


There are cracks appearing it seems to me in the EU position on some of


the key fundamental positions of a negotiating deal. Use said the four


freedoms that underpin the single market, they're not going to ever be


negotiated on and there will be no cherry picking. Others have sent


signals suggesting there can be sector by sector deals which Wild


Britain leaves the single market will allow Britain preferential


access to certain sectors of that single market. Is that possible?


They will be no cherry picking, nobody of the three institutions of


the EU will accept that. Mrs May has indicated she wants to go out of the


union, the single market, the customs union, the court of justice


and then say, that is a new programme that interests me and that


is a sector that interests me, that will not happen, sorry, because then


she has to take the obligations and the payments linked to these


advantages. You can never create a status outside the European Union


which is more advantageous than to being a member of the European


Union. It would not be fair towards the members of the EU and our


taxpayers. You want to believe there can be no cherry picking but others


have sent a different message. Even Mr Barnier, who is with all due


respect more important to the negotiations than you because he is


negotiating on behalf... He is negotiating and we have to approve


his negotiations. He is a negotiator and according to a leak the Guardian


got hold of, he told MEPs that there needed to be a special relationship


between big finance and the City of London. That has been denied two


times by Mr Barnier. In the nature of politics he had to deny it


because it was an authorised to lick. I was in that meeting and he


never said it was a conference of committee chairs of the European


Parliament. He never said that. Be assured of one thing, cherry


picking, we shall not allow. When the German car industry pleads with


the German government and says, be real, I'm quoting the head of the


Federation of German industry, imposing trade barriers and


protectionist measures between the EU and Britain or the two political


centres, the EU on one hand, the UK on the other, would be a very


foolish thing to do. That's a German-speaking. I agree with all


this, I'm against protectionism myself but that's not the point.


It's not a point about protectionism. The point is, if, for


example, I think that is still the best option, the UK should ask


for... To be part of the single market, to continue to be part of


the single market, at the same time accepting the four freedoms of the


European Union. The problem doesn't start with the European Union, the


problem starts with the UK government saying the freedom of


movement of people inside the European Union, we don't like it


because there are Polish people coming to work on a construction


site in London, we don't like it. I think that these people are very


necessary in the UK economy. You know what the labour mobility in


Europe is? 1%. You know what the labour mobility in the US is? 10%.


Ten times bigger. One of the reasons we have 2 million vacancies in


Britain and Europe is because we don't have enough labour mobility.


Isn't the truth, Mr Verhofstadt, you take the position you take, no


cherry picking, no negotiating on the sector deals, you take that


position because you're deeply insecure. You worry if Britain is


seen to get a deal that works for Britain and makes the British


economy successful that it will encourage others in Europe to follow


Britain to the exit door. You're deeply insecure about the fragility


of the European Union. The problem of the future of the European Union


is not so much linked to Brexit negotiations, the problem of the


future of the European Union is linked to the courage and


willingness of the European leaders for the moment to go forward, like I


described in the book, with the unity and integration of the


European Union, a defence community and economic governance for the


single currency, and extort border and coastguard so the future of the


European Union in depends on that. Not so much on Brexit. You've been


writing books about the need for a federal Europe for a long time.


Europa United States of Europe in 2006. As Prime Minister. You wrote


another book in 2009 called how Europe can save the world emerging


from crisis. You have written these books, which now looked like museum


pieces, the world has moved on, Europe has moved on. It's no more


about union and federation. It's the opposite that is happening, you are


laughing a bit about my books but at the same time I was the one who said


we need a banking union before we can overcome the financial crisis.


You agree that the banking union is now in place. How Europe can save


the world was your title in 2009. Frankly Europe has done nothing to


save the world in the last seven years. We didn't have the


institutions on a European level that were necessary. I explained, we


are still a loose confederation of nation states based on the unanimity


rule where we act too little too late. I have described the financial


crisis as a typical example of that and I said we need a banking union


and today we have a banking union. You laughed at me as Prime Minister


when I proposed a number of initiatives for the defence union.


Today these initiatives, European headquarters, are on the table. When


you talk like this, Mr Verhofstadt, you play into the hands of people


like Nigel Farage, one of the key Leave campaigners, who says you are


a dangerous fanatic and you have long anti- British. That is complete


nonsense. I am racing with an old car, it is a 1954 right hand drive


Aston Martin, how can you be more British than that? I'll tell you,


look at your own words, I wonder about your attitude to Britain. You


said in 2015 according to Politico, the website," Politically the UK is


already on its way to becoming an adversary rather than a trusted


partner of the EU". Certainly that is what Mr Farage is exactly


standing for. These are your words. When I am attacking him I am


attacking not Britain, I am attacking somebody who wants to


destroy the European Union. Europe is on its way to becoming an


adversary, is that the way you feel about the UK? Absolutely not, what I


hope is we can find a fair partnership with people like Mr


Farage, at the heart of the Brexit campaign and looking to destroy the


European Union, that's my problem and that is what I will fight. The


thing is, it's not just about Britain. Win you said of the Brexit


campaign, you described it as the latest high mass of tribalism in


Europe. It isn't just actually in Britain where people are expressing


great scepticism about the European Union, great scepticism about


immigration and its effect on Europe. You could look at Le Pen in


France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. The gap Poland, look at


Hungary, so many nations across the European Union -- look at. I don't


deny these people exist and I don't agree with these people but I can


tell you one thing, the public opinion in our countries on the


continent in the EU is not against Europe, they are against this


European Union. That's why I'm saying this book is maybe more


Eurosceptic than all other books that have been published because I


think this European Union will not survive. What you need to do to


convince people who are voting today voting for Le Pen offering a vision


for the future, showing them unity for Europe can tackle the financial


crisis, the economic fallout of it, the migration flows, refugees coming


to Europe. Security issues as well. You have been peddling the


federalist dream for ten years, at what point do you realise it's a


dream and not a reality? The banking union today is a reality because we


have pushed for it. I also think tomorrow the European defence union


will be a reality because the world is changing and we cannot count on


Mr Trump. So it will arrive. IC four example what is happening in France,


the French presidency, Macron, you're following it, what he is


saying about Europe, a French president saying we don't find


sovereignty on a national level, we need it on a European level. Let say


a Frenchman was saying that, you need to invite him on as soon as


possible. We will get you back to discuss the state of Brexit in a few


months or years time. But right now we have to end there Guy


Verhofstadt, thank you for being on HARDtalk.


It is really soggy outside right now, especially in eastern areas


Stephen Sackur speaks to Belgium's former prime minister and current MEP Guy Verhofstadt, an EU politician who'll be at the heart of the complex negotiations over a Brexit deal. He has warned Britain not to expect special treatment as it heads for the exit, but how confrontational is he prepared to be?

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