Jan Werts arrived in Brussels as an EU Affairs correspondent in 1975 just as the European Council summits began. He has been covering them ever since. His latest book is The European Council in the Era of Crises.
Jan, you have followed roughly 230 Summits on the spot. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned?
That the leaders get to grips with nearly every problem sooner or later. Whether it is the euro area crisis, or the departure of the British, there will ultimately be a compromise. That’s despite the fact that this is far from simple. Remember that 27 leaders from very different countries are sitting at the table in Brussels. They have conflicting interests, opinions and traditions. It is rarely easy.
Which summit will you never forget?
Venice, summer 1980. There were actually two spectacular summits in Venice: first the EU, then the G7. In Venice for the first time the EU endorsed the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation had to be associated with the negotiations. An appeal was made to Israel ‘to put an end to the territorial occupation’.
It was also the first summit where terrorism was considered a major threat, because the Middle East was at stake. On arrival we in the press corps were rushed off in superfast speedboats by the Italians − who wanted to give us a bit of a scare and went a long way round to get to the isolated conference centre.
The EU has been under construction since the 1950s. Why did the European Council not arrive on the scene until 1975?
In the 1950s the idealistic founders promised ‘never again war’. For this they thought an overarching European federal state had ultimately to be established. The European Commission was given the lead role. But that project turned out to be an illusion. The national capitals remained in charge by way of the Council of Ministers, usually just arguing over endless details like farm subsidies. In 1975 the presidents and prime ministers took on the lead through their European Council. After years of drift, it was obvious by that time that it was only the national governments, not some supranational body, that could inject any momentum into the project.
Meetings of the European Commission or the European Parliament attract 100 journalists. Sometimes a thousand come to the European Council. Why that huge difference?
As far as the average European citizen is concerned, the Commission and Parliament might as well reside on the moon. The general public don’t get what they do. The European summits on the other hand are aimed at the citizenry. Everyone knows the round table in Brussels from the TV news. In the event of a crisis, the national leaders together look for a solution. They usually manage to do that after haggling all day and sometimes all night, exhausting their officials and advisers. When they leave the meeting room, those leaders (each for their own national audience) tell the reporters how it went. Everyone understands how it works. The reporters get their story, usually one given plenty of ‘spin’. Everything is designed to sell the message to the voters ‘back home’.
Do things happen which do not end up in the newspapers?
Undoubtedly! Until 2004, summits usually took place ‘somewhere in Europe’ − not just in capitals, but provincial places as well. The hosts were rather honoured. They spoiled us with sumptuous dinners and nice gifts. One time, I remember, all the journalists and diplomats were given a travel suitcase. All of the same model. You can imagine the chaos at the next summit in Rome, when everyone arriving by plane found countless identical suitcases going round and round on the baggage carousel. And not everyone had labelled their suitcase.
In the period of highly informal meetings, that’s before Maastricht in 1991, some leaders came with their partner. Although, of course, the ladies (in those days virtually all the leaders were men) did not participate in the deliberations, their presence nevertheless generated a special atmosphere which no longer exists today. In those years stiff drinking often occurred during the evening dinner. More than once after midnight journalists were given the thoughts of a tipsy prime minister or foreign minister.
Those summits often used to take place in huge palaces. There I liked to roam in corridors where you are not supposed to be. Nowadays that is impossible. Once, coming round a corner, I almost ran into two gentlemen. Both unexpectedly shook my hand and walked on. I realised that they were the French president Jacques Chirac and his prime minister Lionel Jospin. It’s an instinct for politicians to shake hands, hoping for your vote, I guess.
In 1991 in Ghent, Commission president Romano Prodi refused to meet the press. That was really unprecedented. ‘Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who must always have the most to say, will not even give me the floor’, complained Prodi. So he preferred to stay away.
In general, the leaders do not make derogatory comments about each other’s domestic situation. However, in 1996 President Chirac called the Netherlands a ‘narco state’ because of the mass production of ecstasy and the many coffee shops there. The leaders also always are looking to find compromises. But sometimes a national leader wants something, or does not want something, so much that they break this convention. Then he or she threatens with ‘a red line’, a veto. That happened for instance in the Brexit negotiations.
The leaders usually remain ‘ladies and gentlemen’. In 1984 in Brussels, however, Irish prime minister Garret Fitzgerald stormed out of the meeting room with tears in his eyes and went straight back to Dublin because a limitation on milk production was suggested. In 2003, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder walked away from the deliberations without saying a word. He was furious about the support from some leaders for the American invasion of Iraq, including the Portuguese prime minister Barroso (though all the leaders later agreed to Barroso becoming Commission president).
She was not loved by her colleagues: Margaret Thatcher with her slogan ‘I want my money back’. In 1987 in Hanover, the British ‘Iron Lady’ wanted to speak with Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the break. But he had no time for her. Moments later, Kohl was sitting in a Konditorei, quietly enjoying a stack of Mozartkugeln chocolates, Thatcher’s spokesperson discovered.
In Dublin in 1996, President Chirac used the toilet break to call his advisor by cell phone from a WC about the limit of the debt France was allowed. A peeing German diplomat heard it too. He informed Chancellor Kohl who now knew exactly how far he could go …
Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi could both amuse and appal with his vulgar humour. In order to break the ice at a summit in 2003, Berlusconi joked about Chancellor Schröder having married four times. He nicknamed him the Audi man because of the four rings in that car’s logo. His foreign minister Joschka Fisher even married five times. According to Berlusconi, he became an Olympic man, with five rings…
The shortest summit ever?
Summer 1995, the Benelux countries were in line to supply the Commission president. First, Ruud Lubbers (Dutch) dropped out for being ‘too anti-German’, according to Chancellor Kohl. Then Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene bit the dust. ‘Too pro-Europe,’ according to British leader John Major. In a further summit that took less than twenty minutes, the leaders finally crowned their Luxembourg colleague Jacques Santer as president.
The most important summit of the 240 (and counting)?
I have to mention three: The Hague in 1969, Maastricht 1991 and Copenhagen 1993. The Hague brought the accession of the British, Maastricht brought the euro and Copenhagen the accession of ten countries of the former communist Eastern bloc.
Who is for you the absolute ‘top personality’ of the 240 summits?
President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France. He was the ‘father’ of the European Council in 1974-1975. Thirty years later, Giscard, as chairman of the first European Convention, succeeded in upgrading the European Council to the officially highest leading political body with a permanent president.
Number two has to be Angela Merkel, for me the ‘chancellor of Europe’. No other leader has left such a mark since 1975.
Are there also countries and leaders that barely count?
Yes and no. Two-thirds of the 27 leaders barely speak in a two-day meeting. But make no mistake. If the prime minister of mini-state Malta, for example, starts complaining loudly about the flow of migrants, people will listen. Because eventually they also need him. The European Council can only decide unanimously.
So a tiny country can just block the whole of Europe?
‘In reality, Luxembourg can only veto once every ten years. We do that monthly, if necessary’, a British politician once stated.
Why was the Netherlands (with Belgium) opposed to summits for decades?
As early as 1961, President Charles de Gaulle wanted to set up a European Council. The Netherlands and Belgium blocked that until 1974. The famous Dutch foreign minister Joseph Luns foresaw that France and Germany would be in charge there. As indeed they usually are. Nevertheless, the smaller countries now fully accept the European Council. They meticulously prepare for every summit and participate fully. Furthermore, each of the three permanent presidents has been from one of the less powerful countries. The EU has many small member states but even Berlin and Paris cannot ignore them. Finally, experience has shown that the leaders of the major countries in the European Council do not always agree. That makes their dictates less likely.
Nowadays all summits are in Brussels. Was it different in Athens, Dublin, Vienna or Stuttgart?
Everything in those days was easy going. After submitting your report after midnight, you would relax with a city walk or a café visit. One night I caught sight of some security guards from the corner of my eye. Then I saw a big plump man chatting with his arms behind his back with some street kids. Helmut Kohl also needed a breather before hitting the pillow.
What have you learned about how the big projects come about?
That the historic projects never come from the Commission, let alone from the European Parliament. The EU was built by forward-looking leaders such as presidents de Gaulle, Giscard and Mitterrand and chancellors Schmidt, Kohl and Merkel.
Commission president Jacques Delors was the exception. Delors, and also Jean-Claude Juncker, often followed up on what the European Council wanted to happen. The Italian Commission president Prodi, on the other hand, pursued his own policy and, precisely for that reason, achieved little.
The leaders of the smaller countries cannot claim an important initiative in recent decades. That is why Dutch prime minister Dries van Agt referred to the ‘Big Boys’, a mix of ridicule and respect.
If it is not the Commission president, who has the most difficult job in the EU?
Hard to say. I once contributed to a book about that with the catchy title: An Impossible Job? The Presidents of the European Commission. The role of the Commission president is ‘about as difficult a job as there is in the Western world’, said the British EU commissioner Chris Patten. And, of course, the Commission is also a huge administrative machine that has to be managed. But the European Council president has to be a consummate and tireless diplomat, trying to steer 27 often argumentative national leaders to agreement. That is a special sort of difficulty.
Were the 1990s the beginning of Euroscepticism?
Certainly. But remember that two decades of acceleration followed. First the abolition of the series of age-old national borders (Schengen). Then the miraculously successful doubling to as many as 28 EU countries. The rich and poor countries of Europe now lived together. At the same time, the risky exchange of national currencies for the euro. Then getting a global economic meltdown and at the same time the euro crises in Greece and elsewhere under control. All quantum leaps.
Everything happened very fast and the EU still fires on all cylinders today. This is the success of Europe. Nevertheless, there is also widespread anti-EU sentiment. Most citizens cannot comprehend the benefits of those quantum leaps. Therefore it is time to consolidate. ‘Anyone who comes up with visionary plans now must see a doctor,’ says Dutch prime minister Rutte. He is quite right. Public opinion does not want a new substantial transfer of national control to ‘Brussels’.