The news came at 4:24 a.m.: The European Union leaders had reached a hard-fought deal on a new treaty that will streamline the way the bloc does business. After two years of stagnation and introspection, the EU can finally re-launch its program of closer political integration. The 27 member states had agreed to the compromise treaty, presented by German chancellor and current EU president Angela Merkel -- who after an evening of tense debates and high drama had finally brokered a deal.
"I was sure that if we didnt achieve this today, we would have ended up in a rather disastrous situation as many would have thought they had been pushed too far," she told a news conference on Saturday morning. "This shows that Europe came together in the end," she said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the deal was vital: "I think now we have made a great step forward." He praised Merkel for a success that many had thought impossible and, presenting her with a bunch of flowers, thanked her for all she had done for Europe.
Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, who had threatened to torpedo the summit, said he was pleased with the final deal: "We did not have to swallow any bitter pills." And British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "I dont think there is anything that can derail the process now."
A Night of Tension and Acrimony
But while all the leaders were smiling on Saturday morning, in reality the all-night talks were often acrimonious and severely tested the bloc's unity.
A showdown between Merkel and Kaczynski brought the summit to the brink of failure. Merkel heaped on the pressure by saying that she would launch treaty negotiations without Poland, but once a compromise deal was reached, she had to deal with other countries' resistance to what they felt had been too many concessions to Britain.
Once a deal was finally hammered out, all the heads of states pronounced themselves pleased. Polish President Lech Kaczynski praised the diplomatic skill and "solidarity" of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair. Sarkozy said he had worked hand in hand with Merkel and described the deal as "good news for Europe." He said it was a key achievement to have struck a deal with Poland. "After all, we didnt want to leave the biggest country in Eastern Europe behind."
The agreement is crucial for the EU. After the collapse of the constitutional project, following its rejection by France and the Netherlands in 2005, the bloc was caught in a state of paralysis. But Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel had been determined to revive the plans to streamline the EU when Berlin took over the presidency in January. She has spent the past six months trying to hammer out a deal for a slimmed down treaty that could be accepted by all 27 members. And she finally succeeded. The member states have agreed to an intergovernmental conference which will give the deal a legal framework. The treaty will then be ratified by the member states and should come into force by 2009.
Poland Wins Concessions
As expected the biggest hurdles to overcome were Poland and Britain. Poland felt that its role in the future European decisions would be diminished while bigger countries, in particular Germany, would have a greater say under the new "double majority" voting system. Under the new system, decisions made by the European Council will no longer be made unanimously but rather by a combination of 55 percent of EU states, which have to represent at least 65 percent of the total EU population.
In the run up to the summit Poland's undiplomatic rhetoric, including its repeated references to the Nazi occupation during World War II, shocked and enraged many EU leaders. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Poland's population would have been much bigger than its current 38 million if it werent for the fact that millions of Poles died during the war.
The compromise with Poland includes the postponement of the new voting system until 2014, and it will now not be fully implemented until 2017. In essence, it means the Poles can maintain their current level of influence in the EU for another 10 years. Under the current system Poland has 27 votes on the EU's decision-making council, compared with 29 for Germany, although its population is twice as big.
Warsaw was also offered pledges of solidarity in the event of any future energy crises, a major concern as Poland is dependent on Russia for much of its energy supplies. Indeed, German-Polish relations took a dramatic turn for the worse when former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder signed a Baltic Sea pipeline deal in 2005 that bypassed Poland. The Poles felt Germany and the EU was ignoring their concerns about being over-reliant on Russia for energy supplies.
The agreement was only reached after a dramatic struggle the likes of which has not been seen at an EU summit for many years. Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who did not travel to Brussels, seemed to be calling the shots from Warsaw. When he rejected Merkel's first compromise offer, which included a delay to the voting system until 2014 and more seats for Warsaw in the European parliament, it looked as if Germany's dream of a summit success would end in tatters.
A Surprise Ultimatum
But Merkel's reaction was swift: She presented Warsaw with a surprise ultimatum, threatening to move ahead with the treaty without Poland. Her move was a gamble, with Poland's allies the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Slovakia rushing to defend Warsaw, but it prompted a last-minute rush of mediation and finally Poland was convinced by Blair, Sarkozy and Luxembourg Primer Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who played the good cops to Merkel's bad cop. The German chancellor then presented her last offer to the Poles, and they accepted.
But it wasnt over yet. The more reform-minded EU leaders then complained that Merkel had made too many concessions to Blair. The British had come with a series of "red lines" that could not be crossed, in the attempt to avoid any risk of having to put the treaty to a referendum, which was sure to be rejected. But the British attempts to water down the treaty led to protests from a number of countries including Spain, Italy and Luxembourg.
The issue was debated until the early hours of Saturday morning. In the end, Britain won a convoluted exemption from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Blair won a guarantee that the charter wouldn't create "justiciable rights'' in the UK -- a way of preventing EU laws from coming into the UK through the back door. The 50-article charter contains an exhaustive list of well-established rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, and will now be legally binding in the other 26 member states.
And London also won the concession that the bloc's new foreign policy chief will not be called "minister," but the rather less catchy "High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy." The new chief will chair meetings of EU foreign ministers and head a combined external action service, drawing on both national and EU diplomats.
Blair, who leaves office on Wednesday and who 10 years ago had pledged to place Britain in the heart of Europe, could go home with a deal which let London continue to maintain control over its own national affairs. "The most important thing here is that the constitutional treaty was put to one side," Blair said on Saturday. "This deal gives us a chance to move on."