Guy Verhofstadt’s glorious private rant in BBC4’s “Brexit: Behind closed doors”


Snapshot from BBC4’s “Storyville – Brexit: Behind Closed Doors

If you haven’t already watched it, it’s very much worth watching BBC 4’s “Storyville – Brexit: Behind closed doors” made by Belgian filmmaker Lode Desmet. He had behind-the-scenes access to Guy Verhofstadt and his family and team during the two years of the Brexit negotiations. (Guy Verhofstadt is the Brexit co-ordinator for the European Parliament). Part 1 is available for the next 20 days on BBC iPlayer here. Part 2 is available for 21 days here.

It’s a beautifully made and fascinating documentary. I particularly liked the way that they showed some of Guy Verhofstadt’s hinterland in terms of his family, his villa in Tuscany, his vineyard bottling operation and his vintage car racing. Some of the car racing is done at Silverstone in Northamptonshire, revealing an Anglophile streak in Mr Verhofstadt.

But the bulk of the programme follows Verhofstadt through endless meetings with European Parliamentarians, team colleagues, politicians and the EU Brexit negotiating team, including their leader Michel Barnier.

M. Barnier comes up with a remarkably astute summary of the situation just as the March deadline for the Article 50 period came up:

There is a very serious crisis in the UK, which, by the way, in my view isn’t a crisis linked to the text of Brexit, and even less to the Irish backstop, it’s a much deeper crisis, an existential one.

For me, the highlight of the film comes at 43’50” in part two when the British parliament starts doing “indicative votes” on various amendment options. This infuriates Verhofstadt who shares an extraordinary and wonderful Dutch/English rant with his office colleagues, all the while waving his arms about extravagantly:

We should get cross with the British. Or the British political class.

A parliament is not a casino, eh?

Within fourteen days, again, on a number of amendments. A pe, pe, pe, pe.

A little bit there, a little bit there.

And they will pass with a majority of ten, fifteen. That’s what they are doing.

…the game of: Oh, this amendment. Oh, this amendment.

Will it pass? No? Yes?

Oh it passed.

Ah, fifteen. They like it.

It’s like a football match.

And it’s always the same.

What we’re seeing is like Manchester City against Manchester United.

Sometimes it’s Manchester City who wins and sometimes Manchester United. But they like it.

Again, 1-1, 1-2. No, 2-1 now.

And meanwhile {whistles}:

Nothing happens.

This glorious tirade is partly accompanied by the the animated Queen (snapshot above), gently waving goodbye. It is documentary-making at its most brilliant.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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30 Comments

  • It was a very revealing program. The frustration with Teresa May is very evident and it really did make the UK government look incompetent which really wasn’t hard to do.

  • Peter Martin 18th May '19 - 2:28pm

    It may be a silly question but did anyone, on either side, consider the chances of whatever was being discussed and sort-of-agreed between the negotiating parties being agreed by Parliament? Why waste the best part of two years drafting, at goodness knows what overall cost, a “Withdrawal Agreement” which has turned out to be a Non-agreement?

    If they had asked anyone who had the slightest knowledge of UK politics they would have been advised to not waste so much time unless there was some positive feedback from the Westminster Parliament. I can’t believe that neither set of negotiators could have foreseen what was going to happen. The only rational explanation is that this was all a deliberate waste of time to run the clock down and so narrow down the choice to be between leaving with no deal and remaining in the EU.

  • Richard Underhill 18th May '19 - 4:35pm

    “The frustration with Theresa May is very evident and it really did make the UK government look incompetent”
    Last time the Tories had a leadership election I blogged that, IF they had any sense, Tory MPs would vote for competence.
    Theresa May had a unique qualification as Home Secretary, which was the removal of a terrorist. Jordan had to promise not to torture him and eventually gave adequate guarantees. FCO’s job really, but no published complaint.
    She has started campaigning in the country when all the other candidates fell away. Some will try again.
    Their competence, judgement and loyalty must also be in doubt.
    Boris Johnson said “cannot be me”.
    Michael Gove is back in the cabinet.
    The Times sells cartoons, a bit bloody.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresa_May

  • Sean Miller 18th May '19 - 6:09pm

    I’m a person who has nearly always voted Conservative, although I did vote for Tony Blair when he first got elected. However times have changed. I’ve decided I will never vote Tory or Labour again. This is purely due to Brexit, which would be a disaster for the UK.

    I voted LibDem in the local elections (sadly it’s a Tory stronghold, and they were voted back in), and it’s my intention to vote LibDem again in the EU elections on May 23rd. Hopefully my vote will assist in the LibDems getting an MEP in my area.

  • Tristan Ward 18th May '19 - 9:19pm

    Thank you Sean, and welcome!

  • Richard O'Neill 18th May '19 - 10:07pm

    These documentaries are a free hit for Brexiteers. I can’t imagine why these weren’t made on condition they wouldn’t be released until after Brexit had been settled.

    In any second referendum the Leave side can just show clips of these to emphasise the “unelected European beauracrats”. Yes that oversimplifies things, and ignores the elitism be of many Brexiteers, but vintage cars and a vineyard! That is how referendums are lost.

  • “A parliament is not a casino, eh?”

    In so far as the Liberal Party voted against the Boundary Commission review in 2013, it is a casino with a very biased wheel.

  • And the icing on the cake is the Guy Verhofstadt interview in today’s Observer Review. Along with the news and comment the main paper, it makes this the most Lib Dem friendly edition of the paper in years – relatively speaking! It may be worth saving from recycling to re-read after twelve months.

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th May '19 - 9:50am

    @ Martin,
    Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I was under the impression that Nick Clegg agreed to reduce the number of constituency by 50 and equalise them in exchange for a commitment to an AV referendum in the coalition agreement.

    I don’t know what point Teejay is trying to make, but it was an extraordinary naive thing to do. The Tories thought that the biggest losers would be Labour, only for them and the Liberal Democrats to discover that in probability, the Conservative Party would not benefit greatly , and the Liberal Democrats would, according to mounting evidence, be the biggest losers.

    In 2010, the Liberal Democrats got into bad company.

  • Clegg and co got dazzled by the prize. When they got hold of it they found it was just a cup covered in tin foil, but where clueless what to do next. They sat in their offices disregarding mounting evidence they had made a terminal mistake and believing they had done the right thing and would be rewarded. Eventually they did got their reward and the shock on their faces was a wonder to behold. None of this comes as a shock anymore, why it is even becoming an acceptted truth. It is a warning to us all don’t fixate on a prize if you havn’t got a clue what yo do with it. In Cleggs case the only thing worth having was electoral reform and he failed to get it, being fobbed off with a referendum the media could trash really wasnt enough, but the prize O the prize dazzled him.

    Why go over sad old history you ask, well if you delate Clegg from this sorry tale and insert Brexiteer you can see history repeating itself. Our brave Brexiteers and Lexi are dazzled by the Brexit prize, they all see themselves rising it above their heads, unfortunately they havn’t a clue what to do with it and the Brexit prize is merely a large pail containing rather a lot of material that may lead to vegetables growing faster but my how it smells.

  • Richard Underhill 19th May '19 - 10:20am

    The bias against the Liberal Democrats is in the First past The Post system, as shown by the 1983 general election results, vote share versus percentage of seats resulting.
    It worked for us in 1906 and should be consigned to history.
    The current deputy PM is now talking preferential voting in the Commons, some progress.

  • Innocent Bystander 19th May '19 - 10:58am

    “Eventually they did got their reward and the shock on their faces was a wonder to behold.”

    Do you mean knighthoods and new jobs at telephone number salaries? It was a shock of delight.

  • Martin:

    As Jane Mansfield correctly points out.

    Nick Clegg agreed to reduce the number of constituency by 50 and equalise them in exchange for a commitment to an AV referendum in the coalition agreement. He then broke that agreement. (Though in any case there are periodic reviews by the Boundary Commission to rebalance constituencies to improve their democratic representation.)

    Had Nick Clegg stuck to his agreement, then the Conservatives majority would have been around 20 extra seats more in 2015. Theresa May could have gone into the European negotiations with a far stronger hand than she did. There would have been no need for a 2017 election but had an election been held in any case, then based upon revised constituencies May would not have been dependent upon the DUP for governance. Furthermore, many of the recent indicative votes that went marginally against the Government would have gone substantially the other way.

    It is difficult to see how Liberals can argue for parliamentary sovereignty when they have voted against a properly constituted Parliament.

    Given the above, I as a founder member of the SDP am bitterly resent the Liberals designating themselves as the Lib Dems. They have no right to claim any heritage from the SDP given their recent anti-democratic history.

  • @ Teejay “They have no right to claim any heritage from the SDP given their recent anti-democratic history.”

    And what less than seven years heritage would that be, Teejay ?

  • Not so innocent bystander,
    That was their consolation prize, the loss is much greater, to go down in history as loosers who got played, which is the role they wrote themselves, is not one I’d crave. Now running round trying to look important while getting payed extortionate sums may salve their pride, but all they have done is replaced the role of being Cameron’s fig leaf to being someone elses fig leaf, in Cleggs case he is now the Fakebook fig leaf, I’d rather not be that no matter what the pay is.

  • David Garlick 19th May '19 - 3:46pm

    As I remember it the Liberal Democrats voted against the Boundary review because the conservatives would not support XXX and I cannot bring to mind what XX was. It was not a vote against reviewing the boundaries but a political tactic of tit for tat. Unsatisfactory may be but whilst we have our adversarial politics much of what goes on is unsatisfactory.
    Bring on STV or similar, increase the coalition rate and get some common sense and consensus building going.

  • The history is a tad more complicated than that @Teejay.

    The review of constituencies was done in the 2010-15, Parliament. But because the Tories blocked the reform of the House of Lords, the Lib Dems voted against the timetable that would have put into effect the new constituencies before the 2015 General Election. Arguably if you are talking about democracy then it’s the whole package – “equalised” constituencies, AV (which while not particularly good would have slightly ameliorated the profoundly anti-democratic nature of FPTP) and to finally have an elected second chamber. (Of course throughout time, as you say, the Boundary Commissions have redrawn boundaries to make them roughly equal. The debate was that this was slightly tighter on how much they could deviate by and whether or not that was more “democratic” or not as it prioritised one democratic goal over others).

    As it is the situation has now been totally in the Tories hands. They could have given effect to the new constituencies before May’s snap election. And that she called the election reducing her majority or conducted such a terrible campaign is not the Lib Dems’ fault!

    And of course there has been another review by the Boundary Commissions which the Tories could bring into effect if they want. They haven’t. I think the DUP would vote for it so it is a question of how many Tory MPs whose constituencies are abolished would vote for it.

    All in all not “anti-democratic” by the Lib Dems and the whole saga has really been in the Tory hands.

  • It would appear Teejay is in favour of electoral biasis when it favours the party he supports but is against it when it doesn’t. Is attitude is endemic through the two main parties, until it doesn’t work for them and suddenly they want change. By disenfranchising people you drive disenchantment, which only needs a snakeoil salesman to change it to something much worse. Our electoral system is broken, it has been for decades and it does much harm to our society.

  • “It would appear Teejay is in favour of electoral bias when it favours the party he supports but is against it when it doesn’t.”

    I wrote ‘none of these ‘ on the ballot paper in 2017. In 2015 I voted Labour only because they seemed to offer the best chance of avoiding a referendum. (I voted ‘none of these’ in the two preceding elections.) In the recent local elections, I decided to be recognised as part of reduced turnout rather than be included in the spoilt ballot paper count. It is doubtful that I will visit a polling station another UK election.

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th May '19 - 5:29pm

    @ Teejay,
    Don’t give up on the ballot box. We may have an imperfect democratic system, but it is currently our democratic system.

    Unlike you, I would not have been happy with AV. It would have been a miserable little compromise. I agreed with Sir Nick Clegg on that.

    My preference was initially for STV but I now believe that the Jenkins hybrid system would be better. Perhaps others on here would put me straight on that.

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th May '19 - 5:43pm

    @ Teejay,

    I forgot to address a point you made.

    I can understand why you voted Labour in 2015. It is a great pity that Labour disappointed by deciding to change policy and support a referendum.

    Thanks to the referendum, when people including people like myself were expected to make a decision on a matter so complex that even if , as a normal Joe/ Sephine, one gave up 20 hours a day in an attempt to study the complexities, one still would not be able to make a truly informed choice, we are now in the appalling mess we are in.

  • @Jayne Mansfield

    Jenkins made, as one would expect from him made a very elegant argument for his system and there have been top-up systems introduced for most assemblies and parliaments introduced recently (Scottish, Welsh, London etc.)

    But I think there is a strong argument that all MPs should have a constituency link and there shouldn’t be two “types” of MPs. Multi-member constituencies elected by STV based on say 4 current parliamentary constituencies and each returning 4 MPs seem a sensible way forward. This maintains the constituency link, is proportional (and unlike the Euros and indeed top up systems – preferential) and allows people to choose between different candidates in the same party (for example a candidate of a particular gender etc.) The criticism is that it would mean bigger constituencies but, for example, the village where I grew up always “moves” to make up the numbers – a different constituency each time. And modern technology makes access to your MP easy. In most urban and indeed rural areas it wouldn’t be a problem and the current system has exceptions to the rules for very rural and remote areas.

    I read the Jenkins report as it happens a few months ago but not since. However from memory the main objection he had to such a system was that it was too responsive to the electorate – a plus in my book.

    On referendums, firstly don’t underestimate the ability of ordinary “Jo(e)s” to understand and grasp complicated issues. There are a vast number of areas – juries in court cases where we do trust laypeople and they have some advantages over “experts” and indeed sometimes they can “cut through” and see the wood from the trees.

    But general elections are even more complicated to understand and grasp. Ultimately the good sense of the people (and actually I do believe they do have good sense) is all we have and by far the most powerful and ultimately sensible thing we have to rely on.

  • David Maher 31st Aug '19 - 4:22am

    Having watched this documentary I am amazed that any UK political party or indeed any UK citizen would be supportive of any aspect and take pride in the EU insulting our leaders and country.
    Whilst I agree that the negotiating teams from the UK have indeed been inept during this process, I would also argue that the UK’s efforts have been undermined constantly by many senior officials of this country.
    Unfortunately this entire process has brought out the worst of both sides of the argument. The Liberal Voice was historically one that could be supported as reasonable and balanced, from more recent events, I fear this is no longer the case.
    Watch the entire documentary again, look at the general disrespect shown to your country from many EU representatives. Look at the gleeful way one of the team states that they have kicked us out and that we have become a colony of the EU. I would also suggest that the comments by Barnier regarding using the Irish Backstop to enhance the EU’s negotiating position is eye-opening!
    One of the comments here highlights the concern that this programme has been aired too soon as the possibility of a second referendum has not totally gone away. They are right, as a remain supporter during the first referendum, I have slowly changed my view and insights into the EU have been instrumental. This documentary will be the main focal point for those wishing to leave the UK and I would suggest that any un-decided voter would vote leave after viewing this.
    Unfortunately, I now hope they do.

  • Pat O'Leary 24th Sep '19 - 2:08pm

    David Maher – did you actually watch the documentary, the full thing, or did you watch the malignly edited version distributed on youtube by one of the groups operating out of 55 Tufton Street – BrexitParty, BrexitCentral, TurningPoint etc? As your comments are late August, the original BBC4 documentary was no longer up on iPlayer.
    Your comment about Barnier using the Irish backstop as leveage is incorrect – he didn’t say this. What they were discussing at that stage was their guess as to the likely UK strategy – i.e. they expeceted the UK to use the Irish border as a leverage point.
    The full BBC video is here https://youtu.be/FvKGWQXi3rM?t=269. The leverage discussion begins around 1hr 34 minutes in.

  • Quick comment.

    I have read it a couple of time’s to be sure, but I assume your comment in the text above saying that “your email is NEVER (I have no italics) published ” is a typing error rather than a Freudian slip’ Can I assume you mean email ADDRESS?!

    Regarding the discussion on the Brexit documentary, I too am puzzled as to how it could possibly be interpreted as ammunition for the ** Brexit/HMG** side. The EU negotiators seem to have been only reasonably frustrated by the Machiavellian posturing and downright INCOMPETENCE of the UK negotiators, and I have only admiration for the forbearance that lead to their obvious (and quite reasonable frustration) venting in amazingly good-natured humour.

    I have to admit that I did NOT vote in the Brexit referendum, as I was torn between the evils of HMG having NOBODY it had to answer to vs an aversion to the apparent taste for a ‘superstate’ within the EU. I realise now, though, that I had not seriously thought through all the ramifications of leaving the EU, and am surprised (and bitterly disappointed) that the in -depth discussions post-referendum have led to so few – virtually NO – people admitting that they really hadn’t thought through the consequences! And “No.” I’m sorry, but all this (to put it very politely) HUMBUG about underestimating the good sound judgement of John and Jane Average, is just the sort of claptrap that politicians say to make the electorate LIKE THEM!!

    It goes along with how everybody’s money is “hard-earned” when they want to justify refusing help to people who DREAM of being able to earn ANYTHING, or how in the US every state is – apparently “great”!

    The average people who sit on a jury have to take themselves out of their everyday lives and sit still and listen to actual EVIDENCE. The strength of democracy is that nobody decides who does and does not understand ‘enough’ to vote. That is also it’s shortcoming!

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