Prime Minister of Belgium
Born Guy Maurice Marie-Louise Verhofstadt, April 11, 1953, in Dendermonde, Belgium; married to a professional opera singer; children: two.Education: Earned law degree from Rijksuniversiteit, Ghent, Belgium, 1975.
Addresses: Home—Ghent, Belgium. Office—Federal Public Service (FPS) Chancellery of the Prime Minister, Rue de la Loi-Wetstraat 16, 1000 Brussels, Belgium.
Head of the Flemish Liberal Student Party, 1972-74; political secretary to the leader of the Party for Freedom and Progress (PVV), after 1977; president of the PVV, 1982-91, and of the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), 1991-97, 1999—; elected to Belgium's Chamber of Deputies, 1985, and served as vice prime minister and minister of state for the budget, 1985-88; elected to the Senate, 1999; became prime minister after VLD's victory in parliamentary elections, 1999, and 2003.
Guy Verhofstadt has led two Belgian governments since 1999 as prime minister and head of the center-right Flemish Liberals and Democrats party, or VLD. His rise to the top political post was a turning point in Belgium's modern electoral history, marking the first time since 1958 that the long- dominant Christian Democrat party fell out of power. Once known for his ardently right-of-center views, Verhofstadt became more of a political moderate in the 1990s, and is credited with leading his party to its renewal of fortunes at the polls.
Verhofstadt was born in 1953, in Dendermonde, a city in Belgium's East Flanders province. As a young man, he studied law in Ghent, the largest city in East Flanders and once a thriving center of the world's wool trade in the late Middle Ages. During his years at Ghent's Rijksuniversiteit, he became involved in Liberal Party politics, and rose to become head of the Flemish Liberal Student Party in 1972, a post he held for two years. In European politics, the term "liberal" usually refers to a center-right, pro-business party. At the time, the Liberals were formally known as Belgium's Partij voor Vrijheid en Vooruitgang, or Party for Freedom and Progress, and commonly referred to by its initials, PVV.
Verhofstadt graduated from the Rijksuniversiteit in 1975 with his law degree, and within two years was serving as the political secretary to PVV leader Willy De Clercq. He quickly emerged as one of the most ardent supporters of free-market reforms in Belgium, which had long been dominated politically by coalition governments between the popular Christian Democrats and their main competitor for votes, the Socialists. The Belgian press even took to referring to him as "Baby Thatcher" for his support of one of Europe's most controversial political figures of that era, British Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher.
In 1982, at the age of 29, Verhofstadt was elected president of the PVV. Three years later, he won his first general election to the Chamber of Deputies, one of Belgium's two chambers of parliament. In the coalition government formed that same year, he was made vice prime minister and minister of state for the budget, but voters in 1988 rejected the PPV slate, and he resigned from government along with the rest of the cabinet.
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, with a king as well as the bicameral legislature. Political parties compete in parliamentary elections that take place at least every four years, and the party that takes the majority of votes then forms a government. If no clear majority wins, then the top vote-getters form a coalition government, with members of both parties making up the cabinet. Verhofstadt's homeland is further divided along cultural and linguistic lines. About 60 percent of its population of ten million speak Dutch and live in the provinces that make up Flanders; these are known as the Flemish Belgians. The remainder, called Walloon, are French-speakers and reside in the provinces of Wallonia. Flanders has traditionally been the more prosperous part of the country, which has led to long-simmering tensions between the two sides.
After 1991 elections, Verhofstadt tried, without success, to form a government with the Christian Democrats. He then led a shakeup of his PVV: it changed its name to the Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Flemish Liberals and Democrats, or VLD), and the reconstituted party was bolstered by defections from the Christian Democrats and the Volksunie party, a Flemish nationalist party. When his second attempt to form a coalition government failed in 1995, Verhofstadt resigned as head of Party and headed to Italy for a year.
Verhofstadt spent much of his Italian sojourn reading and considering Belgium's future as part of the increasingly federalized European Union, whose headquarters were in Brussels, Belgium's capital. He returned home with some newly centrist political views, which included a more pro-environment stance. Leading the VLD once again, he allied with the Socialists and the Green Party of Wallonia to take a parliamentary majority in the coming June of 1999 elections. The campaign strongly condemned the Christian Democrats for recent corruption scandals that had rocked the country. There was also a scare over dioxin, a highly toxic chemical compound, which had been found in chicken feed in Belgium; monitors working for the European Union claimed that the incumbent Belgian government had been engaged in a cover-up over the matter. Finally, the inability of Belgium's law-enforcement arm to capture a notorious pedophile and serial killer also led to a vote of no-confidence for the Christian Democrats at the polls that June.
With the electoral victory, Verhofstadt became prime minister and the first head of a Liberal government in Belgium since 1937. Showing his commitment to the environmental causes, he pushed through a plan to end the country's reliance on nuclear power by 2021, but also demonstrated his Liberal ideals by lowering taxes. In 2001, he broke with other European heads of state when he voiced support for antiglobalism activists, who had been disrupting international economic forums over the past few years. In November of that year, Verhofstadt even invited some of the leaders of the protest movement to a summit in Ghent.
In the 2003 parliamentary elections, the Greens lost most of their seats, and exited Verhofstadt's coalition government. It took some time before a new coalition government, with the second-place Socialists, was formed, and the following year was marked by several setbacks for Verhofstadt and the VLD. After five years as prime minister, he had been unable to deliver on earlier promises to revitalize Belgium's flagging economy. He was also thwarted in his bid to become the next president of the European Commission. Further adding to his troubles, the VLD was trounced in regional elections that year, and his government became embroiled in a bitter fight over permitting nighttime flights at a Brussels airport, which the global courier DHL had requested. In the middle of the long, tense negotiations to resolve this last issue, Verhofstadt's chauffeur-driven Audi struck a concrete pillar, and he was briefly hospitalized.
Verhofstadt's VLD party has traditionally favored European integration, and in November of 2005 his book, Verenigde Staten van Europa ("United States of Europe") was published. In it, he made the argument that public-opinion polls seemed to show that most Europeans favored a stronger federalized Europe, which would include a European defense force.
Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders, Gale, 2003.
Europe, February 2000, p. 25.
Financial Times, December 7, 2004, p. 35.
Independent (London, England), September 23, 2004, p. 30.
New Statesman, November 25, 2002, p. 16.