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EU lawmakers name federalist Verhofstadt to Brexit talks

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament has named Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and arch-foe of eurosceptics across the continent, to represent it in forthcoming Brexit negotiations with London.

Member of the European Parliament (MEP) delegated to negotiate on the UK deal, Guy Verhofstadt arrives at the Conference of Presidents of European Parliament's party blocs in Brussels, Belgium, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Verhofstadt, 63, leads the liberal bloc in the legislature, where he has railed against nationalists like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, who described the Belgian on Thursday as a “fanatical” federalist who “hates everything we stand for”.

Parliament, which announced Verhofstadt’s appointment by a caucus of fellow party leaders, will have a limited role in the detailed negotiations with British Prime Minister Theresa May, once she formally launches the process triggered by the June 23 referendum vote to leave the bloc. But MEPs will have to pass legislation to enact a divorce and possibly other agreements.

Verhofstadt was one of a trio of parliamentarians involved in negotiating this year’s pact with May’s predecessor, David Cameron, which offered Britain concessions on EU migration and other rules in a vain bid to persuade its voters to stay.

Verhofstadt, who called his appointment an “honour” and said parliament would play a “central role” in any deals with London, has long taken a tough line with the British. But he spoke out after the vote to back Scotland’s pro-independence leader Nicola Sturgeon in her quest for Scots not to be forced out of the EU.

A Fleming fluent in English, he has often clashed verbally in the chamber with Farage as well as with Syed Kamall, the pro-Brexit British Conservative leader in parliament. Farage said Verhofstadt would speed Britain’s departure from the bloc but Kamall complained that he had been appointed in a “back room” deal and called for an open vote in the legislature.

There is little love lost between the Belgian and the Conservatives. When Boris Johnson dropped a bid to lead the party in July, Verhofstadt said he and other “Brexiteers” were “rats fleeing a sinking ship.” Johnson is now foreign minister.

NEGOTIATING LINE-UPS

The EU parliament is dominated by strongly pro-EU members, who fear that a deal too generous to Britain will reinforce centrifugal forces elsewhere. They will be keen to prevent Brussels and other states allowing Britain to retain full access to EU markets while keeping out European immigrants.

Detailed negotiations will be handled by the EU executive, the European Commission. Its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has appointed Michel Barnier, a French conservative former minister, MEP and EU commissioner, to lead the talks.

The other 27 member states must also agree any deals. They will negotiate through the European Council and its president, Donald Tusk. He has named Didier Seeuws, a Belgian diplomat who was once Verhofstadt’s government spokesman, to coordinate the Council’s involvement in the negotiations.

While Barnier has been visiting Brussels to prepare for his task, he does not formally start his job until Oct. 1. EU officials say they see little urgency since May says she will not formally notify the Union this year of Britain’s plan to leave, under Article 50 of the EU treaty.

Tusk, who met May in London on Thursday for their first official talks, and Juncker, insist there can be no negotiations until that notification -- although British and EU officials widely expect some general, informal discussions about how talks will be conducted and on possible outcomes.

Tusk told May, who has made Brexit campaigner David Davis her minister responsible for negotiating with Brussels, that the ball was now in Britain’s court. Notification under Article 50 should set a two-year deadline for its departure, either under an agreed treaty or without one, if talks fail to reach a deal.

Editing by Ralph Boulton

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