Q & A: 'I Was Fighting Until the Very End'

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After holding out for more rights for smaller member states, both current and future, at the European Council in Nice, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, 47, was called "a hero for Europe" by his Finnish counterpart, Paavo Lipponen. Other European leaders may have felt differently: it was Verhofstadt's stubbornness that pushed what was already the longest European summit ever into the pre-dawn hours of a fifth day. After returning home for some well-earrned rest, he talked with Time Brussels bureau chief James Graff.Time:The Nice Council has been compared to haggling over carpet prices. Are summits like this really the way to decide Europe's future?

Verhofstadt: When you're talking about matters as important as we were at Nice, it's not exceptional that you need four days for it, even the morning of a new day. But we're not yet talking about the future of Europe. That debate is only starting. This was a summit where we tried to prepare Europe for the enlargement process. We accomplished the minimum minimorum of reforms to begin that process.

Time:The Union's low public acceptance surely isn't helped when its big moments in the spotlight are semi-annual summits that seem far removed from ordinary citizens' concerns.

Verhofstadt: I certainly agree with you. We have to give Europe another image, we need a whole other approach. The E.U. began as an open-ended discussion in 1952. After this next enlargement we will have restored the unity geographically, politically, historically of the European Continent. And at that moment it's absolutely necessary that we have a final debate about what the European Union is about. In that discussion you can resolve the problem that the citizens look at the E.U. as a bunch of bureaucrats and Eurocrats, and maybe solve the identity crises that some of our member states seem to be having.

Time:So there will be an end point to the "ever closer union" prescribed a half-century ago and pursued in fits and starts since then?

Verhofstadt: That's a key element of the further debate. If you want to go further in the sense of a small Commission with a directly elected President, if you want to create a legislative body with the European Parliament on one side and the Council on the other side, if you want a system with direct financing from the citizens rather than from the contribution of the states, where you always have discussions about getting back what you paid in if you want to go in that direction, and I think we do, you have to talk about limiting the competences of the E.U. But this debate can't just happen among politicians. It has to have the largest possible basis.

Time:If it is ratified, will the treaty of Nice move the European Union more toward integration or more toward an intergovernmental approach?

Verhofstadt: This summit was not definite in its choice of one direction or the other. This summit was historic for one reason: as the starting point for the enlargement process. That's the real value of this treaty, that it makes restoring the unity of Europe possible. That's why I was fighting until the very end on the issue of the weighting of votes in the Council: every new member state should be treated on the same basis as the old ones. You don't get a successful start on enlargement by saying, "Okay, we're the serious guys, you new members can only have part of the power we have now in these institutions."

Time:Did the battle over the relative weight of big and small countries overshadow more important matters at Nice?

Verhofstadt: It was absolutely necessary. What they tried to do in Nice was make a directorate of the big countries. The European Union can't survive like that.

Time:It can't have been easy to face down your frustrated and tired counterparts early on Monday morning.

Verhofstadt: That's not the first time. I started at the age of 28 as president of my party, and the Belgian political scene requires lots of long negotiating, too. Our conviction was that we needed a more equitable weighting of the votes, and we used that weapon throughout the summit in order to obtain more Europe. And in the sense that we now have a treaty that can start the enlargement process, we got more Europe.