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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

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By Alastair Macdonald

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 the forthcoming Brexit negotiations with London.

Verhofstadt, 63, leads the centrist liberal bloc in the EU legislature, a platform he has used to fulminate against the rise of Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party and other nationalists and to call for a much more closely integrated, federal Europe.

Parliament, which announced Verhofstadt's appointment by fellow party leaders on Thursday, will have a limited role in the detailed negotiations with British Prime Minister Theresa May, once she formally launches to 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 described his appointment as an "honour" and said parliament would play a "central role" in any deals with Britain, has long taken a tough line with the British.

A Fleming fluent in English, he has often clashed verbally in the chamber with Farage and well as with the pro-Brexit British Conservative leader in parliament.

When Boris Johnson backed out of seeking the party leadership after the referendum, Verhofstadt said he and other "Brexiteers" were like "rats fleeing a sinking ship." Johnson is now May's foreign minister.

"HE HATES US" -FARAGE

Despite a surge at the 2014 election for eurosceptic parties, the EU parliament is dominated by strongly pro-EU members, many of whom 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 access to EU markets while keeping out European immigrants.

UKIP's Farage welcomed the appointment of a man he called a "fanatical" EU federalist "even by the standards of the European Parliament". The choice would, he said, speed Britain's exit because "Guy Verhofstadt hates everything we stand for".

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 Dominic Evans)

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