The former Belgian prime minister, who is a supporter of a United States of Europe, had hoped to be appointed as the figurehead for the so-called Conference on the Future of Europe. But he was seemingly snubbed after European capitals insisted on selecting a high-profile but independent candidate for the role. At a private meeting in Brussels, EU ambassadors agreed on a common position for the planned conference, which has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They decided the conference should be led by an “eminent European personality, selected by the three EU institutions, as its independent and single chair”.
Brussels sources suggested this meant the project’s top boss would not be selected from either the European Parliament, Commission or Council.
Mr Verhofstadt has been a Belgian member of the EU Parliament since he was elected in 2009.
He was understood to be a favoured contender to lead the new conference after French President Emmanuel Macron was promised the role for a member of his liberal Renew group.
In February Express.co.uk reported that Mr Verhofstaft was facing serious opposition in talks to decide a potential leader for the process.
Sources said the snub would infuriate Mr Macron who had been told a political ally would be offered the job at a European summit in June last year.
The conference will be launched as soon as it is safe enough to hold public events across the Continent.
But capitals called for a potential digital makeover that would enable the conference to take place while pandemic restrictions are still in place.
“Digital engagement efforts and activities would be of key importance, especially in the event of restrictions related to COVID-19, while physical participation and face-to-face exchanges should remain an essential part of the conference,” according to a statement agreed by the European Council.
It must still be signed off by the European Commission and Parliament.
Croatia’s European affairs minister Andreja Metelko-Zgmobic said: “Member states want to encourage the active participation of citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe, which has become all the more relevant following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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He said it should “propose all the necessary changes to our political project, without any taboos, not even treaty revision”.
But the text agreed by EU ambassadors makes clear the conference itself would not be able to trigger treaty change.
It states the conference “does not fall under Article 48 of the Treaty on the European Union, which lays down the procedures for treaty amendments”.