Behind the Scenes in Brussels: EU Summit Reveals a Paralyzed Continent
What happens behind closed doors at an EU summit, when European leaders are among themselves? SPIEGEL has reconstructed the negotiations at the most recent meeting in Brussels in December based on documents and accounts given by numerous sources. It was a summit of hopelessness.
The haggling is in full swing at this hour -- North against South, rich countries against poor ones, German Chancellor Angela Merkel against French President François Hollande. They're stuck on a word, one that would normally have a beautiful, positive sound: common. The word "common" is dividing Europe. This is what it has come to in this night of hard-fought negotiations.
For more than six hours now, the leaders of the European Union have been meeting in Brussels to discuss the future. They are here to agree on a document, and according to item 12 of that paper, there is to be a "common backstop" for the new banking union, a sort of shared resolution fund for worst-case scenarios.
Germany wants the word "common" deleted. So do Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. France wants to keep the word in the document, as do Italy, Spain and Portugal. The northern countries are afraid that they'll be asked to pay even more than they already do, while the south is hoping for more shared responsibility in the crisis. The dispute continues for three-quarters of an hour. The northern countries win the fight and the word "common" is stricken from the closing statement of the most recent EU summit.
This happened on Dec. 13 and 14, during a meeting of the European Council, the powerful EU body consisting of all 27 heads of state and government. They meet behind closed doors, and not even their closest staff members are allowed to attend. During these discussions, secrecy is normally paramount. But as of the last one, that no longer applies.
Months ago, SPIEGEL began opening the doors to this summit. A team of six reporters traveled to European capitals to find sources for a reconstruction of the December meeting. As a result, they were able to obtain reports on the negotiations, during and after the summit, from almost a dozen sources. The reports make it possible to accurately recount the events that unfolded.
The participants expressed satisfaction after the meeting. Some, including the chancellor, said they had made some progress. But is that true? Ahead of this summit, in particular, expectations had been high. It was supposed to be about the big picture, the future of the economic and monetary union -- and not just new aid for Greece. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy had been tasked with submitting proposals on how to strengthen the union.
Van Rompuy had Merkel's backing. Speaking to the European Parliament in November, she had voiced her strong support for a fundamental reform. "A renewed economic and monetary union needs more common fiscal policy," the chancellor said, as well as "a common economic policy." She had used the word "common" twice.
For some time, Merkel has believed that the founding fathers of the euro, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former French President François Mitterrand, made a mistake when they neglected to give the currency a political structure. For Merkel, this is one of the reasons for the current crisis. She also believes that it's up to her generation to correct the mistake. She wants the EU member states to give up more sovereignty so that policymakers in Brussels can quickly and effectively decide on a common fiscal and economic policy. To achieve this, Merkel even talked about amending the European treaties.
The December summit was seen as an opportunity for Europe to take a big and decisive step in this direction. But it failed on that count, producing an outcome that was tenuous at best.
How could this happen? The days leading up to the summit and the meeting itself show how Europe functions -- or rather, doesn't -- at a key juncture. They show how a big idea can be ruined in ritualized routine. Despite the talk, few leaders are truly advocating further European integration these days.
Olso, Monday, Dec. 10, 1:20 p.m.
The applause begins to build, growing louder and louder. Merkel and Hollande, who are sitting in the front row, turn around, smiling and whispering to each other. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk tells them to finally stand up, and when they actually do, Hollande takes Merkel's hand and raises it above their heads. And there they are, standing hand in hand, their arms outstretched, and smiling.
It's an important and moving moment. The European Union is being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on this day, and the chairman of the Nobel Committee has just extoled Franco-German reconciliation, which explains why the two leaders are now standing there, basking in applause.
They're sitting at lunch an hour later, 20 EU leaders, Van Rompuy, the Council's president, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso -- the European administration, in other words -- and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. They are in very good spirits and are talking about integration and a deepening of relations. In fact, Schulz is still doing most of the talking.
Martin Schulz, 57, a Social Democrat from Würselen near Aachen in western Germany, is known for his strong personality, which he expresses in lengthy tirades. When he walks, he is as bowlegged as the professional soccer player he almost became, and he is a talented actor. Merkel likes to say to him: Why don't you do Sarkozy for us? Then Schulz does a perfect imitation of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, looking agitated and hectic, and speaking in a deep voice, to Merkel's great amusement. Another one of Schulz's strengths is that he never stops fighting for a united Europe .
In Oslo, at lunch, he talks about the upcoming elections in Italy and the threat posed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has announced that he wants to run again. Schulz says that while only the Italian people can decide whether Berlusconi becomes their prime minister again, his election could have serious implications for all Europeans, and that this issue underscores the poor design of the EU. No one contradicts him, and many agree. Integration must continue, Merkel adds. Bathed in the halo of the Nobel prize, everyone feels very European. At this banquet, at any rate, they can give speeches that cost them nothing.
Brussels, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m.: The ministers for European Affairs are holding a luncheon in preparation of the summit.
Michael Link, a minister of state in the German Foreign Ministry, represents Germany. The documents that will serve as the basis of the summit are the main topic of discussion.
When it comes to Europe's future, the egos of the heads of the most important EU institutions play an important role. Council President Van Rompuy was actually tasked with presenting a paper to be considered at the summit, but Commission President Barroso preempted him. Thirteen days before the meeting, he presented the public with a 51-page document titled "Blueprint For a Deep and Genuine Economic and Monetary Union," in which Barroso describes his proposals for the reorganization of the EU. "In this type of monetary union," he writes, "all major economic and fiscal policy choices of its member states should be subject to deeper coordination, endorsement and surveillance at the European level." Barroso proposes establishing an economic government in three phases.
Van Rompuy followed suit five days later. His paper consisted of only 15 pages, and the title didn't sound as ambitious: "Towards a Genuine Economic and Monetary Union." Although Van Rompuy had borrowed Barroso's three-step model, revolutionary proposals like the establishment of a debt redemption fund and a European Finance Ministry were eliminated. There was, however, still talk of an independent "fiscal capacity" for the euro zone, the coordination of labor market and tax policy, and of "common decision-making" on national budgets.
Berlin Dismisses Reform Plans as 'Science Fiction'
But by a week later, on the eve of the Brussels summit, there was also little left of Van Rompuy's proposal. The draft of the document that the EU leaders are supposed to adopt, the so-called conclusions, merely mentions that the member states will discuss their reforms when deemed "appropriate." A common budget is no longer mentioned, and the document nebulously refers to an "integrated financial framework." The idea of binding reform agreements among the member states and the EU institutions has also disappeared into the fine print. The document states that "individual agreements of a contractual nature with EU institutions could enhance ownership and effectiveness." Now Van Rompuy has also eliminated the three-step plan.
In the meantime, he had spoken with many European leaders by phone, and he quickly found out that there is no strong support for deeper integration in Europe.
"Most of it is science fiction," German State Secretary Link says dismissively at the luncheon in Brussels, referring to the first Van Rompuy document.
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