Dinner and intransigence - how the talks collapsed

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Twelve hours hours before the EU summit collapsed in disarray, two of its main protagonists met for dinner in a Japanese restaurant on Avenue Louise, the main street of the Belgian capital.

Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, the French President, both have an interest in sumo wrestling and, on Friday night, the two men were squaring up for a fight.

In the company of Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, they discussed talks on the EU constitution and concluded that there would not be what one official called "a bad agreement". By lunchtime on Saturday, the central row of the negotiation, pitting France and Germany against Spain and Poland, had proved impossible to resolve. Europe's leaders agreed a statement of just two sentences admitting failure, as the first negotiations in which the 10 new member states participated as equal players lay in ruins.

Almost two years after the architects of a European constitution began their work, the document they produced has been put into cold storage, where it is likely to stay for a year, maybe more. Elections are looming in Spain next spring, and in Poland and Britain in 2005, making the prospect of compromise on the constitution more difficult.

The deal foundered over Spain and Poland's defence of a decision-making system, agreed at a summit in Nice three years ago, which gave them 27 votes in contrast to 29 for Germany, which has twice the population of either country. Berlin and Paris backed the scheme in a draft constitution drawn up by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, for "double majority voting", in which decisions would require the backing of half of the EU nations, representing 60 per cent of the EU population.

During the tense, two-day summit, compromise plans emerged. One would have retained the Nice system but given Germany two extra votes in the decision-making Council of Ministers to reflect its size, perhaps reducing those of Spain and Poland. The answer from Mr Schröder was "no". He wanted something based on M. Giscard's text.

He was more willing to negotiate on other schemes, such as a plan to defer the move to double majority from 2009 until 2014, and for a vote to be taken in 2008 whether to go ahead with it. An alternative was to raise the thresholds for double majority voting to help Spain and Poland block measures, which they opposed.

Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, was open to discussing one formula under which laws would have required the backing of 54 or 55 per cent of EU members and 64 or 65 per cent of the EU population. But the Poles, assuming these ideas were the first offers in a long negotiation, refused. At around midday on Saturday, M. Chirac, Mr Schröder and Tony Blair went to see Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier and chairman of the talks, and persuaded him to declare them over.

Poland got much of the blame for so much work coming to so little. One diplomat said: "The Poles totally overplayed their hand. They thought they were the deal-breaker when, in the end, it was not up to them to decide".

Polish intransigence and the hapless chairmanship of Mr Berlusconi gave France the opportunity to walk away from a deal on which they had been cooling for some time. As one diplomat said: "The member states very quickly got the impression that there was no masterplan from Berlusconi. That freed France and Germany to say 'let's forget it'."

Many believe that M. Chirac came determined to teach the Poles a lesson. He clashed with them over their decision to back the US over war in Iraq earlier this year, and France's anxiety about loss of influence after next year's expansion of the EU has been growing steadily. Paris is also conscious that, if the double majority voting system was adopted, this would make Turkey the second most powerful player after Germany, if it was allowed to join the EU, because of its big population.

Overall, Europe's leaders realised there was little political kudos to be had in making concessions. All knew that, under the current legal situation, the constitution was not strictly necessary because the EU can carry on under the treaty agreed in Nice.

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