In a moment of unusual parliamentary candor — and, certainly a fit of pique — the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has told the European Parliament that — in the upcoming talks over Britain's exit from the EU (Brexit) it is better to be "inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."
Verhofstadt was responding to a particularly strong statement from the European Council following the Council meeting, December 15, — led by Donald Tusk — that it would take the lead on all negotiations over Brexit, making it quite clear that the parliament would take second place.
"The Presidency of the Council will be prepared to inform and exchange views with the European Parliament before and after each meeting of the General Affairs Council. The President of the European Parliament will be invited to be heard at the beginning of meetings of the European Council," the statement said.
The wording of the statement could not have been clearer: the Council will lead and the Parliament — whose lead negotiator is Verhofstadt himself — will follow.
Of Tents and Pissing
Verhofstadt told the Parliament: "I have the impression that you [the Council] have never read the Treaty of Maastricht and the Treaty of Lisbon on the powers of the European Union and the European Parliament. What you're proposing is simply to say that 'Oh, we'll go forward with the Brexit negotiations, but without the parliament."
"Are you not aware that we have to approve these arrangements? It's time that you also involve the parliament from day one. Do you want us to open separate negotiations with the British authorities? Is that want you want? You can have it! If that's what the heads of state want, we'll do it!
"There's a famous phrase of [former US President] Lyndon B. Johnson. He said once: 'better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in'. Maybe that's a good saying you can remind the European Council of," said Verhofstadt.
Under the terms of the Treaties of the European Union, Britain must first invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which formally start the process of negotiations on a member's terms of leaving the EU and defining its new relationship with it.
European Council President Donald Turk has made clear he thinks the Council — the EU leaders, their ministers and advisers — will lead the talks. Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has appointed former French minister and ex-Commissioner Michel Barnier as EC's chief negotiator.
And the European Parliament has nominated Verhofstadt — who may yet be its next president — as its lead negotiator. From Verhofstadt's reaction in parliament, it is clear he thinks the Council is taking the piss.