The Failed Brussels EU Summit

The decisive EU summit in Brussels this weekend to work out a final text of a Constitutional Treaty failed to achieve that aim. As had been expected, the principal stumbling-block was the question of the voting regime to be used for passing measures within the Council of Ministers by a “qualified majority”; both Poland and Spain stuck firmly to their demand that the current voting system, inaugurated by the December, 2000 Nice Treaty, be retained, while other states – principally the EU’s two biggest players, Germany and France – were equally as adamant that a new “double majority” system, proposed in the new Constitution, be implemented. But there were other points that had to be left for later resolution as well, as we’ll see.

At least this time the leaders of the 25 present-and-future EU member-states did not have to endure any marathon negotiating sessions stretching way into the night and ultimately into Monday morning, as had been the case before (including most notably at that very Nice summit three years ago). No, this time it was all over officially by 14.15 hours on Saturday afternoon, when EU Council President Silvio Berlusconi announced to the press that there was still “total disagreement” on the voting-weights question so that there was nothing left to do but go home and try again later under the Irish presidency. In fact, even by lunchtime Saturday the only remaining issue for the assembled heads-of-government to sort out was what was going to be put into the final communiqué.


Taking up coverage from the French Le Monde (Silvio Berlusconi Tries to Avoid Failure for the European Summit), it seems that Berlusconi had made it clear to his fellow heads-of-government from the beginning that a weekend-long negotiation session was not in the cards. At lunch on Friday, trying to lighten the atmosphere, he proposed that initial conversation revolve around “women and football.” (See the Belgian coverage just below for his comedy routine at that point.) “Football” gave him the opportunity to mention that the Italian team that he owns, AC Milan, was scheduled on Sunday morning at 11:00 to play the Argentine team Boca Juniors for the Intercontinental Cup in Milan – and that he intended to be there.

After lunch the summit got underway for real, with both the Belgian and Danish prime ministers (Guy Verhofstadt and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, respectively) speaking up to defend the work of the Constitutional Convention and advocate that it be accepted as unchanged as possible. But it soon transpired that the real action towards seeking some sort of compromise that could enable the summit towards to achieve its goal was taking place away from the plenary sessions, in one-to-one meetings between Berlusconi and fellow heads-of-government that the former called “confessionals”: come to Papa Berlusconi and tell him your wants and your fears – and especially tell him where you’re willing to back down so he can put together a compromise!


After a last plenary session from 18.00 to 19.30, Berlusconi abruptly suspended the Intergovernmental Council’s (IGC) work for that day, which meant canceling the common state dinner that was supposed to happen later that evening. Instead, more “confessionals” followed, as heads of state headed out to Brussels restaurants and hotels in self-selected groups to continue talking and get something to eat. Belgium’s De Standaard takes over the story from here (EU-Top Descends into Bartering): Gerhard Schröder, Jacques Chirac, and Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt dined together at a fancy Japanese restaurant, while Berlusconi himself huddled mainly with Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller – in a back-brace and wheelchair – which was a highly appropriate choice since at that point Miller’s refusal to yield on the Council voting-weights was threatening to sink the summit. Saturday morning was likewise more about bilateral discussions than full plenary sessions, and by noon it had become obvious that there was no more progress to be made.

The Standaard article reports considerable dissatisfaction among several national delegations over Berlusconi, in particular over his usual off-the-cuff style in leading the common discussions. He followed that joking proposal of his at Friday lunch that they just start out talking about women with the suggestion that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lead that discussion, since “you know all about that, Herr Schröder!” (who indeed has been married four times). At another point, De Standaard reports, Berlusconi made the observation that most of Italy would be happy to see him thrown out of a helicopter – something Leszek Miller could not have appreciated much, since a serious helicopter accident from the week before last was precisely why he was going around everywhere in a wheelchair.

The Belgian French-language newspaper La Dernière Heure (which means “the last hour”) appropriately-enough has noteworthy coverage of the summit’s end-game in its article EU Summit: Delegations Confirm Failure. It seems that what precipitated Berlusconi’s decision to simply call the whole thing off was a late-morning meeting he had with the leaders of France, Germany, and the UK; it was after this that he announced his decision to the summit’s other participants at Saturday lunch, and the communiqué-writing began. A Belgian inside source told DH that a new meeting of the IGC, at whatever level, could happen as early as January (although, as we’ll see in other reports, the Irish expect nothing like that to happen under their presidency until March at the earliest). As a Belgian paper, perhaps it is no surprise that in its reporting DH included Belgium with France and Germany as among the stoutest defenders of the Constitutional Convention’s work; but maybe that is valid anyway, as Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel distinguished himself from his colleagues by abandoning the usual policy of non-recrimination to criticize “countries which are unwilling to recognize the results of the Convention” at a press conference at the summit’s end.


German Chancellor Schröder choose much the same path in his remarks after the summit’s close, as covered by the FT Deutschland (EU Constitution Summit Failed). Regretting the summit’s failure, he attributed its “decisive point” to the decision of some countries (no prizes for guessing which two he meant) to place their national interests before the European ideal. The task now was to use the additional time to bring these countries around from that position. If they refused to be brought around, then he had something else for them to think about: Europe could split into a “Europe of two speeds,” with Germany intensifying its integration with like-minded countries (he named France and the UK) to push through measures among this restricted circle that perhaps would not be approved by the entire EU. “Those countries that want more integration should think about this path.”

Coverage of the summit’s break-up on the website also reports these remarks, and adds that Schröder defended Berlusconi’s stewardship of the summit, saying that he had done all that he could. It also reports on parallel post-summit remarks by French President Jacques Chirac, that perhaps that “two-speed Europe” would be a good idea. The failed summit had reinforced the concept in his mind that there was a “cultural difference” between EU member-states, namely between those who have long been members and others with “less European experience.” ( also includes a quote from Leszek Miller, one of those with “less European experience”: He expressed the hope that the failed summit “will make our entire European family wiser in the coming weeks and months.”)

Belgium’s Le Soir amplifies Chirac’s thoughts about how to go on from here in its article After the Summit’s Failure. Chirac actually preferred to use the phrase groupes pionniers (“pioneering groups”) rather than “two-speed Europe.” “I persist in thinking that this is a good solution because it will provide a motor, provide an example. I think that that will permit Europe to go faster, further, and better,” he proclaimed to the press. Of course, to many others a “two-speed Europe,” or groupes pionniers if you like, is just another way to phrase the break-up of the European Union, as groups of like-minded states despair of getting approval for EU-wide action and instead go off together to do what they want. On the other hand, it’s also very accurate that that “two-speed Europe” already exists in areas such as defense (where some member-states are neutrals while others are very active in NATO), border controls (the Schengen group is the sub-set of EU members which has abolished border checks on their common borders), and of course the euro (still not adopted by the UK, Denmark, and Sweden). At least Luxembourg Premier Jean-Claude Juncker was willing to recognize that Schröder’s and Chirac’s idea was essentially being used as a “stick” – meant to bring Poland and Spain around and back into line in time for the next summit – when he told reporters that “two-speed Europe will only be the result of persistent disagreements.”

It is also in this Le Soir article that we hear from Irish Premier Bertie Ahern about what happens next: “There won’t be any other IGC in the next months to come. I don’t think there will be any agreement before March. There’s not enough political will to find an agreement.” And an interesting comment from Guy Verhofstadt at his post-summit press-conference: “A number of countries, which includes Belgium, are no longer prepared to make a Constitution by bargaining [“par des marchandages“].” This marks an important change; before, reaching an agreement – any agreement – was key, so European leaders would bargain into the night to finally find it. But now member-states are prepared to walk away and face the prospect of failure straight-on. That explains why such business as there was at this Brussels IGC could be wrapped up by early Saturday afternoon; it also goes a long way towards explaining why it failed. Is this failure better than the “success” at Nice, which apparently produced a treaty whose terms so many European leaders regret today? (Remember Valéry Giscard d’Estaing: Better No Constitution Than a Mutilated Constitution.)


In its early coverage warning readers that the Brussels summit had failed, A Fistful of Euros did a particularly good job in choosing a sample out of the Polish coverage (namely Gazeta Wyborcza’s Fiasco-Summit in Brussels. The Irish Will Take Up Negotiations over Constitution), which raises some interesting questions about just what went on there from the Polish/Spanish bloc’s perspective. Poland and Spain were ready to compromise at Brussels, Gazeta’s writers proclaim (three writers, with long Polish names and strange letters within them; I’ll refer you to the on-line article itself if you’re just dying to know who they are). The problem was simply that the Italians presented no compromise offer. Indeed, according to one source quoted from the Polish negotiating team, “No one made any special efforts to come to a compromise. There wasn’t even one full plenary session, and never any offer placed on the negotiating table.” Was Berlusconi and the his Italian delegation being incompetent – or was he just not much in the mood to try too hard for any solution, and instead looking for an excuse to cut the summit short and get out of town? Just what influence did the international football match he wanted to attend in Milan on Sunday morning – again, an appointment of which he had made everybody aware from the beginning – have on the course of this summit?

Finding no assistance from those who were supposed to be in charge, Poland and Spain made their own offers. Throughout the summit they pushed – to anyone who would listen – for the “rendez-vous clause” compromise, which would put off consideration of the Council voting-weights question until a later point. Later, they even proposed a compromise which would retain the Nice voting system but adjust it to recognize Germany’s greater population: Germany would be granted an additional two votes, to a total of 31. But the German side was not interested.

In the end, where the blame for the summit’s failure should be placed is clear to the Gazeta writers: on France and Belgium. As the negotiations went on through Friday night and Saturday morning, it was Jacques Chirac in particular, with the support of Verhofstadt, who rejected repeated compromise proposals which Poland, Spain, and Germany had found acceptable. And then, after it was all over, there was that Belgian Louis Michel, facing the press and denouncing the “egoism of some [states],” who by their actions had merely “shot themselves in the foot.”

Let’s conclude by consulting a handy scorecard on the issues that remain unresolved published by Le Soir (The Principal Stumbling-Blocks). Number one is the European Council voting arrangements, of course, where (to recall) disagreement is still “total,” according to Silvio Berlusconi. But other issues remain outstanding as well, such as the argument about whether to reduce the Commission to fifteen voting members as the draft Constitution proposes. According to Le Soir, France and Germany still insist on that fifteen-member solution, while it seems Italy has proposed a compromise under which each member-state would get its one voting Commissioner until 2014, at which point the argument about what to do next would presumably erupt all over again. Further unresolved points include that question about whether to write an explicit reference to Europe’s Christian heritage into the Constitution, about whether to grant the European Parliament the final say over the EU’s budget as the Constitution proposes, and on the placement of certain policy-areas (to include foreign affairs and fiscal policy) into the “unanimity” or “qualified-majority voting” categories in the Council.

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