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Belgium's 'Baby Thatcher' caught in tussle over top EU job

17 June 2004, 14:57 CET

Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, once dubbed "Baby Thatcher" for his free-market zeal, was leading the race Thursday for next head of the European Commission, but faced a veto by Britain for the top EU job.

London says that the 51-year-old former lawyer -- whose resemblance to a grown-up student belies a keen political mind -- is a dangerous federalist bent on creating a European superstate.

Verhofstadt's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq -- he organised a defence "mini-summit" with France and Germany last year -- did not exactly find favour with Britain or other pro-war nations such as Italy and Poland.

Born in the western city of Gent, Verhofstadt entered politics early and shot up the party ranks, becoming president of the Flemish Liberals at the age of 28.

He entered parliament at 32 and in 1985 was appointed deputy prime minister in the coalition government of Christian Socialist Wilfried Martens.

But his image as a fiery young gun was seen as arrogant by some and in 1988 he returned to opposition.

His "wilderness years" were to last more than a decade and through two election failures in 1991 and 1995, the second of which led him temporarily to abandon the leadership of his party.

But marrying his childhood sweetheart and becoming a father of two seemed to calm Verhofstadt down and by 1997 he had returned to the frontline with a more moderate image.

The move towards the political centre changed his electoral fortunes. In 1999 he led his party into government, to head a country reeling from the Marc Dutroux paedophile scandal and a dioxin food contamination crisis.

On the domestic front, the prime minister's first term was marked by a liberal social agenda that saw gay marriage and euthanasia legalised and marijuana decriminalised.

Over the years Verhofstadt has however turned more protectionist, adding to British suspicions that he would turn the clock back at the commission as it confronts major reform goals, such as the Lisbon agenda to transform the EU into the world's most competitive economy by the end of the decade.

In recent weeks Verhofstadt has played down any ambition for the Commission job, insisting repeatedly that he is happy in his job as Belgian prime minister, a post to which was re-elected last year.

But France and Germany have come out openly behind him, and Verhofstadt only fuelled the speculation by paying a surprise pre-summit visit this week to Poland, one of the countries that is thought to oppose his candidacy.

As EU leaders gathered in Brussels Thursday, Verhofstadt's hopes were in the balance, caught in the traditional power play between the EU's heavyweight states.

Even as the EU summit opened it emerged that the European People's Party, the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, had agreed to back EU external commissioner Chris Patten for the job.

EU leaders were planning to decide the matter Thursday evening, although diplomats have warned it could be delayed until next month if no consensus is found.

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