There was plenty of talk of history in the making in the week before the Dec 8/9 gathering of European Union leaders – the eighth this year. But it was all about the currency and whether it would survive the strains of a debt crisis that over the past two years has engulfed Greece, spread to Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy and now threatens France and even mighty Germany.
As the summit began, there was no hint of the drama that was to come in the early hours of Friday, the moment when Europe split, 26 against one, after about 10 hours of talks. Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with its EU partners, choosing not to join the single currency or sign the open borders Schengen treaty and often kicking against what it sees as Brussels “interference”.
But this was a low point. The first time in 39 years that a British prime minister had used a veto to block an EU agreement. David Cameron cast it is a bold and necessary decision to protect British interests. Most of the rest of Europe appeared to regard it as reckless and went a different way. Hours later, when the leaders briefly reconvened to finish their discussions, Cameron cut a lonely figure. French President Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to avoid an extended hand as Cameron walked to his seat.
The build up to this last summit of the year had been much like the previous seven. The language had been recognisable too, even if market pressures had added an unprecedented degree of urgency to glacial EU decision making. Overnight borrowing from the European Central Bank hit its highest level since March at the start of December, showing the degree of tension amongst banks.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had spent several days in Europe before the summit. The United States, like all of Europe’s trade partners, had been watching the accelerating debt crisis with profound concern, worried for their own economies and banks.
In meetings with the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, and euro zone finance ministers the conversation was all about the two-year-old debt crisis and how to resolve it. The issues: the role of the ECB, how far should or would it stand behind countries to buy them breathing space, the scale of the euro zone’s rescue fund, the part to be played by the IMF, and should the EU let private bondholders off the hook.
Geithner spent time in Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Marseille and Milan. London didn’t figure on his itinerary. During the same week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy spoke frequently and met in person. There were contacts with Spain’s incoming Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Draghi was closely involved in discussions at all stages, insiders say. Once more, Cameron was peripheral.
Immediately before the summit, the U.S. assessment of Europe’s progress was, in broad terms, they know what they need to do but they need to work out how they’re going to do it. As one U.S. official put it, fixing the flaws of the 13-year-old single currency – a monetary union without coordinated budget policy – could not happen overnight. But the Europeans were moving closer to addressing the problem at its root.
That assessment captured well the mood in the hours heading into the latest in a long line of “crunch” summits.
Germany – Europe’s biggest economy – was intent on changing the European Union’s treaty to enshrine stricter budget discipline and penalties for countries that failed to adhere to them, to ensure there could be no repeat of the current crisis. From the German perspective, only by reforming economies, cutting social benefits and working longer would the indebted members of the euro zone and the single currency emerge from the turmoil. Printing money would buy only a temporary respite and would remove the incentive to reform.
France was ready to back Germany in a push for full-blown treaty change, but really favoured the idea of an intergovernmental treaty – akin to a sideline agreement – among the 17 euro zone members, anchoring the single currency and its members at the heart of a new Europe.
Britain’s prime minister, under pressure from a sizeable anti-EU element in his own party, set off for the Brussels meeting straight from his son’s school nativity play, having promised during a particularly raucous session of parliament the previous day that he would defend Britain’s interests at the summit.
With hindsight, the choreography on the evening of Thursday, Dec 8 probably should have been clear to Cameron and everyone else.
Speaking a few hours before the summit began, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso issued this challenge to Europe’s leaders: “What I expect from all heads of governments is that they don’t come saying what they cannot do but what they will do for Europe.”
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs euro zone finance ministers’ meetings, was the first to arrive at the Brussels venue. Juncker said he preferred to see unanimity on treaty change among the 27, but if that wasn’t possible, the 17 members of the euro zone would have to go it alone. “Their relationship is more intimate than between the 27.”
When Cameron arrived in Brussels on Thursday it was after 6 p.m.. His first meeting was with Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Monti, an unelected “technocrat” charged with getting Italy’s finances in order. Europe’s fourth biggest economy has a debt to GDP ratio of 120 percent after years of stagnation under Silvio Berlusconi. The meeting was brief and was followed by 45 minutes of talks with Merkel and Sarkozy. Cameron was accompanied at that meeting by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Jon Cunliffe, the prime minister’s most senior EU adviser, the architect of the rules that helped keep Britain out of the euro and Britain’s next ambassador to the EU. One official who saw the three leaders emerge said they were “visibly tense”.
Then came dinner and the start of the meeting that was to end in Britain’s isolation. Sources involved described how events unfolded. The intention was to get the 27 leaders to agree on what they wanted for a stronger euro zone first, and then work out how to achieve it, officials said. It was disagreement over the means, not the objective, that led to the break down.