Whenever a European summit erupts in angry disputes and concludes with questionable compromises, as did last weekend’s talks in Brussels over the Greek crisis, it is invariably English-language observers who put events in the most pessimistic light. If this is not the end of the post-1945 ideal of European integration, it is surely the beginning of the end, they say with scarcely disguised Schadenfreude.
Seen from a continental perspective, such moments of drama assume a different hue. French, German and Italian policymakers and commentators seldom view the rows as so bad-tempered, and the horse-trading as so unedifying, as to constitute a mortal threat to the underlying spirit and purpose of European unity. In the end, the show goes on because it must go on, they say wearily but with relief.
The Brussels summit fits into this framework of a Europe that lurches from crisis to crisis, without ever tumbling into the abyss. But only just. Summit leaders averted Greece’s departure from the eurozone, but not before Germany had posed the choice of Grexit or the harshest financial aid terms ever demanded of a EU member state.
The conditions set for Greece are so strict that, even if politicians in Athens accept and implement them (and who would bet their house on that?), they will turn Greece into a sullen protectorate of foreign powers. Anti-Greek resentment in certain creditor countries will not cool down easily, either.
But now the alternative is clear — the first, partial reversal of a European integration process that started even before the EU’s founding 1957 Treaty of Rome. It would be a precedent fraught with unpredictable consequences.
On a Richter scale of European acrimony, the Brussels summit was high — probably 8.5 — but, arguably, it was not the highest of the past 20 years.
Consider the words of Viktor Klima, Austria’s chancellor from 1997 to 2000. Summarising the furious quarrels that broke out at a May 1998 summit in Brussels, called to appoint the first European Central Bank president, Mr Klima said he had never seen such a vicious fight in his political life.
Most governments were content to hand the ECB job to Wim Duisenberg of the Netherlands. But Jacques Chirac, France’s then president, insisted that leaders should consider Jean-Claude Trichet, a Frenchman. It ended in a strange deal under which Duisenberg agreed “voluntarily” to yield his seat to Mr Trichet halfway through his term. Wisecrackers quipped the first ECB president should really be called Jean-Claude Trichenberg.
The Nice summit of December 2000 was a brawl, too. At stake were the votes to be distributed among EU member states in a reweighted system of qualified majority voting. Among those at each other’s throats were the Belgian and Dutch prime ministers. Once again, however, Mr Chirac stole the show.
According to Martin Dedman, a historian of EU integration, Mr Chirac was so determined to hammer home his point that France should have voting parity with Germany that he unsubtly reminded Gerhard Schröder, the then German chancellor, that France “has nuclear weapons and was on the right side in two world wars”.
Three weeks ago, the Mediterranean refugee crisis produced another snarling EU summit. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier, was so fed up with the reluctance of other states to share the burden of asylum seekers that he fumed: “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it.”
As this example suggests, today’s disputes differ from those of yesteryear because the context is different: the EU’s present difficulties are multidimensional and more acute than ever. Apart from Greece and refugees, the EU faces a British referendum on EU membership, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and truculent behaviour elsewhere, the rise of anti-EU populism, unemployment and low economic growth.
Jean Monnet, a EU founding father, once said: “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” The challenge for EU leaders is to prove him right.
Get alerts on European Union when a new story is published