Verhofstadt — who is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group in the parliament — is making his move at a time of turbulence in the presidency as the two largest political groups, the European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are embroiled in a political row over the presidency.
The EPP and the S&D have been in 'grand coalition' since 2004, agreeing to work together on the work of the parliament in return for sharing the presidency between them.
The president in the first half of the current parliament, which began in 2014, was the S&D's Michael Schulz, whose role should have passed to the EPP group. However, the S&D group president, the Italian politician, Gianni Pittella has put himself forward for the presidency, threatening the collapse of the 'grand coalition'.
The EPP group, December 13, voted for another Italian — the former EU Commissioner and one of the 14 vice-presidents of the parliament, Antonio Tajani — to stand for the presidency, which will be voted on, January 17, 2017.
Ahead of the European Council meeting, December 15, the EU prime ministers and Commissioners said it would be appropriate if the three institutions of the EU — the Council, Commission and Parliament —reflected the balance of power in European politics and declared their support for Verhofstadt for President of the European Parliament.
"The European Union faces several severe crises at once. There is the persistent economic crisis, the refugee crisis, the terrorist threats and the geopolitical instability in our neighborhood. The liberal Prime Ministers in the Council want to see these crises resolved in an effective and efficient manner. We see the European Parliament as a reliable partner to make this happen," said the President of the ALDE Party Hans van Baalen.
"The European Parliament will choose a new President on the 17th of January. We are sure its members will make a wise choice. The European Parliament is an honorable institution that deserves to be headed by someone who combines vision with extensive experience and the ability to build bridges across political divides. With Guy Verhofstadt, we have an excellent candidate who has these qualities."
The Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the Council President Donald Tusk are both EPP politicians, so Verhofstadt's bid on behalf of the ALDE group is seen as an attempt to rebalance the political influence at the top of one of the three main EU institutions.
Meanwhile, Verhofstadt has fired a warning shot across Tusk's bows in a row over the negotiations over Britain's exit from the EU — known as Brexit. Tusk's Council released a statement following the latest Council meeting, December 15, saying it would lead the Brexit talks. Verhofstadt hit back saying Parliament should be an equal part of the negotiations from the start.
If Verhofstadt were to become the parliament president and Tusk insists on being the lead role in Brexit — at the same time as Juncker has also appointed his own chief negotiator — the Brexit talks could become deeply embroiled in EU personal politics.