The failure to agree an EU constitution had many culprits. An insider spills the beansby Peter Ludlow / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
A year to the day after the Copenhagen European council of 2002 agreed to admit ten new members, the EU 25 failed its first major test. In the immediate aftermath of the Brussels intergovernmental conference (IGC) of 12th-13th December 2003, both commentators and insiders looked for culprits. This was understandable and indeed justified: some individuals were more responsible than others. In a longer term perspective, however, the breakdown at Brussels was an accident waiting to happen.
There were three main issues, all designed to make the enlarged EU function more effectively, that the IGC ought to have resolved: the weighting of national votes in the council of ministers (the EU’s main decision-making body), the scope of qualified majority voting (QMV) and the composition of the commission. All three have a long, complex history.
The Spanish government threatened to torpedo the union’s fourth enlargement at Corfu in 1994, unless its status as a large member state was acknowledged in the voting system. The compromise, with which the Spaniards were bought off on that occasion, was intended to be temporary, pending the IGC which everybody agreed would be necessary before the union’s next, still more ambitious enlargement eastwards and southwards. When the heads of state and government returned to the weighting of council votes at Amsterdam in June 1997, however, they were unable to rationalise the system, and in the face of opposition from Jos?-Maria Aznar, they were obliged to acknowledge that Spain’s special problems would have to be met in the next IGC.
The Amsterdam IGC did little better on the other two issues. The large states agreed that they would in due course give up their second commissioners. But the small states would not agree any arrangements that compromised the principle of one commissioner, one member state. As for QMV, despite the encouraging tones of the new British prime minister, Tony Blair, it was obvious that, like his predecessor, he had several "red lines" which he could not concede.
Three and a half years later at Nice, the IGC duly agreed a treaty, but at the cost of compromises that appeared as provisional as they were inelegant. In the light of what has happened since, the single most important feature of the Nice dispensation was that Spain and Poland were given 27 votes each, which meant that either of them could form a blocking minority with two of the larger states – Germany, France, Britain and Italy – all of which had 29 votes. There was also some movement on the composition of the commission, when the small states accepted a protocol which said that, as and when EU membership rose to 27, "the number of members of the commission shall be less than the number of member states." Finally, the list of subjects on which the council could vote by QMV was significantly extended, even though tax and social policy remained off limits.
The treaty of Nice was neither a triumph nor a disaster. But a declaration, annexed to the treaty at German insistence, made it clear that it was to be no more than a stopgap solution. As a result, the three issues were at the heart of the constitutional convention’s agenda when it began work in 2002.
Some radical solutions eventually emerged under all three headings. In the case of the council of ministers, for example, QMV was defined as a simple majority of member states, representing at least 60 per cent of the EU’s population. This meant scrapping the whole system of rather arbitrary national votes and in effect giving greater weight to population. This benefited Germany, with its larger population, and reduced the blocking power of Spain and Poland. The fact that the draft constitution embodied these ideas did not, however, make their adoption any easier. The Spanish representative registered reservations about the provisions regarding the weighting of votes and it was clear that other governments, too, intended to voice their doubts under other headings once the IGC began. The convention was a useful precursor of the IGC. It was not an alternative to it.
The powerful emotions that the three questions have aroused over the past ten years should be seen against the background of three major cleavages over the character and direction of the EU. The first concerns the rights of small states. Arguments between large and small states have been a feature of every constitutional debate since the enlargement of 1994. During the past five years, however, the tone has become more bitter. At Biarritz in October 2000, small and large state leaders traded insults over the dinner table. At Seville two years later, seven small-state prime ministers thwarted a much needed council reform proposal because they smelt a large state plot. In the convention, and later in the IGC, between 15 and 18 existing and future members, with Austria and Finland to the fore, formed a cabal to safeguard their rights. There has doubtless been some provocation, notably by France and Germany. But the small states have contributed considerably to the breakdown of civility that has made the search for agreement in the present IGC even more difficult than on previous occasions.
The second cleavage, between Spain and its partners, has also been a constant feature of the last decade. Spain has always demanded to be treated as a large member state and the recent deterioration in its relations with France and Germany has complicated the picture. The causes are numerous. A crucial moment was France’s failure to stand by Spain during its dispute with Morocco in 2002. The Iraq war, linked with the perception that US strategy in the future may give greater weight to maritime powers such as Spain, than to central powers such as Germany, has also been significant. More important than any of these external considerations, however, has been Aznar’s growing impatience with French and German economic policies. Spain’s own economic success has encouraged the belief that it is no longer so dependent on EU handouts.
The third cleavage, between the Franco-German axis on the one side and Britain, Spain, Italy and several central and eastern European states on the other, has become increasingly significant in the politics of the EU since Jacques Chirac’s re-election in 2002. Iraq was one cause, though not the only, or even, on the Franco-German side, the most important. In the second half of 2002, Chirac and Gerhard Schr?der held at least six bilateral summits. Iraq certainly figured frequently on the agenda, but so too did the financing of enlargement, European defence, the EU constitution and Franco-German co-operation.
The tones and priorities have occasionally differed in Berlin and Paris. Some of those involved have spoken of a Franco-German union within the union. Others have appeared more interested in a larger core, or in a revival and extension of co-operation with Britain. Common to every proposal, however, has been the shared conviction that France and Germany can only maintain their leadership role in the enlarged union through a more systematic commitment to joint action than before. It was symptomatic of the new approach that during the convention, France quietly abandoned its claim to voting parity with Germany.
On the British side, Blair’s European strategy, based on a series of special relationships with selected partners, was not intended by those who devised it in 1997 to create a rival grouping to the Franco-German axis, which was regarded as a fact of life. Growing differences with France and Germany over economic and security questions, particularly in the past two years, have tended to transform the British-led group into an alternative pole of influence. Hence, for example, the letter by the group of eight supporting US policy towards Iraq, and Britain’s decision in the convention to back Spain’s case on council votes.
Against this background, failure at the IGC was always on the cards, though not inevitable. On the contrary, although the compromises that had been reached on previous occasions were less than perfect, the European council had always managed to cobble together some kind of agreement. Why did it fail to do so this time?
Three factors are pertinent: the role of the presidency, the behaviour of Poland and Spain and the mutual relations and common actions of Europe’s big three, France, Germany and Britain.
The Italian presidency was already in trouble when it circulated its final pre-conference report on 9th December. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and officials, working closely with the EU’s council secretariat, had cleared most of the IGC agenda in little more than two months. The trouble with the report was how little it said about the disputed issues. To the annoyance of those, such as the Spanish government, who were looking for help on the voting question, the Italians offered no compromises. Silvio Berlusconi boasted that he had "a secret solution in his pocket," but even those who believed him wondered why he had not then put it on the table.
Once the heads of state and government assembled in Brussels on the Friday morning, it was quickly apparent that the presidency did not even have a game plan, let alone a magic formula. Buoyed by his success in romping through a lengthy but uncontentious European council agenda in little more than an hour, Berlusconi suddenly decided to initiate a discussion of the separate IGC business at the working lunch that followed. When the Polish foreign minister pointed out that his prime minister, who had been injured in a recent helicopter accident, was taking time out, the Italian prime minister suggested that the European council should discuss "women and football" instead. (The impact of these remarks was limited by the fact that some interpreters apparently refused to translate them.)
After lunch, the IGC began at last, with "confessionals" (bilateral meetings between the Italian presidency and the principal protagonists), followed by a brief plenary session shortly before 6pm. In none of these meetings did Berlusconi suggest a way forward. His introductory remarks at the plenary session, for example, were purely procedural. As a result, only ten of the 24 other heads of state and government present bothered to speak. In the absence of a lead from the presidency, there was nothing new to say. Chirac announced that he would speak in the morning. Schr?der and Blair remained silent.
Thereafter matters proceeded in the same confusion in which they had begun. The presidency’s new round of bilateral meetings went on until 1.30am, but left most of those involved still more mystified than they had been when they started. Further confessionals were announced for the Saturday morning. When the participants arrived for them, they were told that Berlusconi was still in his hotel and his foreign minister Frattini would conduct the meeting.
In a final attempt to regain control of the process at 11am on Saturday, the Italians convened a small group of "friends of the presidency." This is a familiar tactic, but presidencies that have resorted to it in the past have usually had substantive proposals to discuss. On this occasion, the senior officials from Denmark, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands and Britain who took part quickly discovered that all that the presidency wanted to do was to set up a meeting between their principals and Berlusconi to review the situation. There was not the slightest suggestion that the presidency had ideas of its own about how to resolve the impasse.
Long before the "friends of the presidency" had finished, however, the initiative had passed elsewhere. While Berlusconi was busy with his Friday evening confessionals, Chirac, Schr?der and Guy Verhofstadt, the prime minister of Belgium, dined at a Japanese restaurant across town. The conversation was wide-ranging. Two points were agreed. First, the current meeting was almost certainly leading nowhere, and second, if the IGC broke down, clear steps to establish a core Europe would have to be contemplated. Rumours about this meeting began to circulate that evening. By the time national delegations reassembled in the council building on Saturday morning, the air was thick with talk of a declaration that would shortly be released by France, Germany and a few other countries.
In the absence of Berlusconi, who was again in his hotel, Chirac and Schr?der were meanwhile conducting confessionals of their own. The German chancellor met his Polish colleague for less than five minutes, while the French president talked with the Spanish prime minister for 30 minutes. The outcome of the German-Polish meeting was entirely negative. So too, according to the French, was the Franco-Spanish conversation, although Spanish officials insist that Aznar indicated that he was ready to strike a compromise. It was the French version of events that counted, since it prompted the French and German leaders to invite Blair to join them in a trilateral meeting that began at about the same time as the Italian meeting with the friends of the presidency.
The big three’s meeting did not take very long. When it was over, they asked to see Berlusconi, now back in circulation. Outward courtesies were observed: the meeting with the presidency was to be no more than an exchange of views. The reality was very different. The Italian prime minister was left in no doubt that he should call the conference to a halt. Shortly afterwards, he did as he was told.
As this brief summary suggests, Berlusconi’s performance was incompetent from beginning to end. He tried to start before he had said he would. He gave no sense of being in charge at any stage. He stopped because he was instructed to. The EU has recently had an impressive run of European council presidencies: Paavo Lipponen, Antonio Guterres, Guy Verhofstadt, Jos?-Maria Aznar, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Costas Simitis have all carried out their duties with distinction. Berlusconi clearly did not.
Berlusconi was, however, a bit player in a drama written and directed by others. To hold him primarily responsible would be to endow him with an importance that he does not deserve. The outcome of the Brussels meeting was determined much more by the actions and interplay of five of Berlusconi’s partners: Jos?-Maria Aznar, Leszek Miller, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schr?der and Jacques Chirac.
Both Aznar and Miller wanted to maintain the council voting system provided for in the Nice treaty. By the time the Brussels council met, they were clearly on their own. Despite this, both stuck obstinately to their positions. Indeed, in Poland’s case, the leadership’s rhetoric hardened rather than softened. In a BBC interview shortly before the European council assembled, the Polish president, who seemed likely at the time to take the injured prime minister’s place, compared the stand that Poland was taking in the IGC to its struggle for national independence.
When the meeting began, Spanish officials claim that their prime minister told the presidency that he was ready to compromise. It is also said that he gave the same message to Chirac on Saturday morning. This sounds plausible, if only because it is consistent with Spanish behaviour on previous occasions. On this occasion, however, Aznar had unwittingly carried his brinkmanship beyond the brink. Whether he liked it or not, he was no longer an independent operator who could choose when to fight and when to compromise. Inextricably bound to Poland, his only chance of achieving an honourable compromise would have been by helping his Polish colleague down from the tree into which, inspired by Spain’s example, he had recklessly climbed. There is however no evidence to suggest that he even tried.
As for Poland itself, it is hard to sympathise with the tactics it pursued. When the question of the council voting system came up during the convention, the Polish government’s representative, Danuta H?bner, indicated her sympathy with Spain’s stand. Unlike her Spanish counterpart, however, she did not register any specific reservations when the time came to sign the draft treaty, presumably because she understood that overall agreement was a prize of greater value. In the months that followed, a weak government, whose support in opinion polls had sunk to single figures, allowed its fight for survival at home to destroy its judgement about what it could hope to obtain in the IGC. When Miller returned to Warsaw he was hailed as a hero. In the European council, which will be taking decisions of great material significance for Poland, he was totally isolated.
Despite their pretensions to big power status, it is unlikely that either Aznar or Miller could have thwarted an agreement indefinitely. Their misjudgements, like the presidency’s ineptitude, contributed to the breakdown. The decision to break the meeting up belonged to the big three.
They began on Friday 12th December by breakfasting together. According to British sources, it was an amiable, but inconclusive occasion. According to the French, it provided fresh evidence that Blair would not cause them trouble by sticking with the Spanish on council votes. Events during the following 24 hours suggest that the French judged rightly. When on the Saturday there was a clash between Chirac and Schr?der’s second meeting and Italy’s belated attempt to convene some "friends of the presidency," Blair decided to take his most senior advisers to the meeting with the French and the Germans, and sent a (very able) B team to hear what the presidency had to say. Any analysis of why the big three acted as they did must therefore focus on Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schr?der.
By the time the European council met, both Chirac and Schr?der had made it clear, together and apart, that it would be better to have no treaty than to have a bad treaty. They were ready to contemplate failure. Did they facilitate it? We do not know and, given the way in which the two principals play their hands, are never likely to. What does seem clear, however, is that at the very least neither of them found a breakdown inconvenient. Developments both before and during the Brussels meeting suggest that the balance of power within the union was moving so decisively in France and Germany’s favour that they could stand to gain from a prolongation of the conference.
A quiet but perceptible softening of the small states’ approach to the IGC was already apparent by the end of November, and was sufficiently marked in the week before the Brussels meeting to suggest that the risk of the small states making common cause with Poland and Spain had all but vanished. France and Germany themselves were still distrusted, particularly in the eurozone group, where their refusal to abide by the terms of the stability and growth pact had been a shock to the system. The small states’ apparent willingness not to push too far within the context of the IGC nevertheless benefited them much more than it did Poland and Spain.
The second development was even more important. In various settings and by various means, the British prime minister signalled shortly after the summer holidays that he wanted to mend his bridges with the central powers. As the protracted negotiations on European defence were to show, Blair would not abandon his most cherished principles regarding the role of Nato. Blair’s journey to Berlin in September was not therefore his Canossa. He was nevertheless the demandeur. As a result, despite thick layers of compromise and conditionality, the French and the Germans already knew before the European council that they had got most of what they wanted on defence, while the breakfast ? trois, which was duly arranged for the morning of 12th December, only confirmed that the British were neutralised.
The third pre-Brussels development did not become public knowledge until after the breakdown had occurred. Unknown to most of their partners, six of the net contributors to the EU budget – Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain – had been working since November on a joint position on the future of the EU’s finances. The letter that the six sent to Romano Prodi on 15th December was intended as a contribution to the debate on the future of the EU budget, rather than the IGC. For this reason it was not released until after the Brussels meeting. Its sponsors, including France and Germany, were nevertheless fully aware that the tough message that it contained on lowering the ceiling of EU budget contributions was likely to become more useful in dealings with Poland and Spain, both net beneficiaries from EU funds.
At the meeting itself, things continued to fall nicely into place, as far as the French and the Germans were concerned. New Europe was in disarray. Aznar was not talking to Miller and neither could rely on Blair. The defence deal, which was endorsed on Friday morning by the European council, met French and German requirements. Confronted by rumours of an impending declaration concerning the establishment of a core Europe, many of the small states hastily made known their strong desire to be within the core. And Berlusconi had mud not just on his face but on every other part of his anatomy.
This may or may not have been what they planned. It seems fairly obvious ,however, that the French and the Germans had good reason to call proceedings to a halt, particularly as the alternative was the excruciating sight of an incompetent president in office spoiling everybody’s weekend.
When the party ended, both the president and the chancellor emphasised that what had happened did not constitute a "crisis." As Chirac observed, the EU had never before begun and finished an IGC under the same presidency. It was therefore neither surprising nor disturbing that the Italians had decided to leave it to their successors to complete the task. The two men were also anxious to stress that core Europe was not an objective in itself, but a possible consequence of a definitive breakdown that had not yet occurred.
In the light of what has been said above about the causes of the breakdown, this kind of language was only to be expected. France and Germany had every reason to be conciliatory. What is more important, looking to the future, is that they may well be right. No breakdown is either pleasant or dignified. What happened in December could nevertheless prove to have been a necessary phase in a process that in the end purges the EU of some of the poisons that have affected its health during the last ten years.
The balance between big and small states, for example, is out of kilter. Not, as their more vociferous leaders claim, because the small states are a threatened species, but because in a decentralised economic and political union, which depends on the efforts and efficiency of its member states, those who commit the largest resources must be satisfied that their powers are commensurate with their responsibilities. Of course the smaller states require safeguards. Even if the six largest states in EU 25 were to vote together, they would still require seven small-state allies to secure the simple majority of states required in the draft constitution. In addition, as a coalition of the big six with the smallest seven would represent approximately 75 per cent of the population of EU 25, the new regime can scarcely be described as undemocratic.
As for Poland and Spain, the idea that their voting strengths should be roughly equivalent to Germany’s, which has roughly twice the population of either, was always bizarre. Now that France has abandoned its claim to the same number of votes as Germany, the Polish and Spanish position is indefensible. If the prolongation of the IGC allows more pressure to build up on Poland and Spain, the whole EU, and not just France and Germany, stands to gain.
It also seems likely that after the harrowing experiences of the Iraq crisis, the EU is on the way to developing a common foreign and security policy worthy of the name. The provisions of the constitution, on which, the scope of majority voting apart, everybody would seem to be agreed, coupled with the political agreements on the EU’s new military structure and its security doctrine, suggest that a new and healthier balance in the age-old dispute between Europeans and Atlanticists is attainable.
There has also been a sobering-up process, in the course of which many of the sillier illusions of both the member states and the institutions have been tempered, if not entirely destroyed. The constitution openly acknowledges principles that have long been true, but which the rhetoric of enthusiasts and sceptics has too often obscured – that the EU is a hybrid, combining elements of both intergovernmentalism and supranationalism. That the European council, which brings together both heads of government and the president of the commission is the core of the system. That EU law has primacy over national law.
Last but not least, there seems to be a greater willingness to acknowledge the central position of France and Germany. The stampede by many of the smaller states to be included in core Europe in the final hours of the Brussels meeting was the result of panic. It was nevertheless salutary. So too is the quiet but significant reappraisal of Britain’s alliance policy that has gone on since the summer.
There are however some very large obstacles still to overcome. The breakdown may have been convenient, even potentially beneficial. But the problems that the Brussels meeting failed to resolve must now be addressed before the benefits can be reaped. The constitution may be 90 per cent a done deal, yet until the residual issues are settled there is no constitution. Disaster may be a prelude to triumph, just as it was in 1987-88, when the Copenhagen council failed to reform the EU’s finances and a special meeting in Brussels ten weeks later succeeded. Failure is never pretty, and it will require time and effort to restore the reputation of the EU at home and abroad.
The Irish presidency is due to report on the next step at the European council in March. Whatever it proposes, it will bear a heavy responsibility over the coming months. So too in all probability will the Dutch presidency that follows. It is no disrespect to either to say that the heaviest responsibility of all will rest with France and Germany.
Magnanimity in victory is more easily displayed in rhetoric than in action. Both the German chancellor and his French colleague may be victors. They will only lead the enlarged EU if they succeed in changing their tone and developing new policies in areas as diverse as the stability and growth pact, bilateral relations with Poland and Spain, further bridge-building with Britain, and the reform of the union’s finances. Above all, they will need to show that they want enlargement to work, which in turn will mean demonstrating that their conciliatory rhetoric about core Europe after the Brussels meeting was serious.
It is a tall order. Neither leader is famous for consistency. Both are better at tactics than strategy. However, the remaking of the Franco-German axis in the past 18 months suggests that they know what is at stake. France and Germany are essential to the union. The union is also essential to them.