An outbreak of goodwill

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Maybe it is the time of year, but an unlikely event took place in Brussels in December: a European Union summit which did not end in rancour and back-stabbing.

After a grim year for the EU, the Brussels summit of December 15-16 not only agreed on a new seven-year budget, but prime ministers, presidents and chancellors discovered to their surprise they could still work together.

After all that has happened in 2005 - the rejection of the constitution, the budget wrangle, rising protectionism, the controversy over the EU’s services directive - the Brussels summit was something of a revelation.

It was not all smiles. Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, has clearly struck Tony Blair off his Christmas card list: he embarked on a 15-minute diatribe against the British EU presidency at a tense summit dinner.

But the general mood was positive. Jacques Chirac, French president, praised Mr Blair’s “courage” in giving up part of the rebate.

José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who earlier compared Mr Blair to the Sheriff of Nottingham - taking from the poor to give to the rich - said Mr Blair had run an “excellent presidency”.

Perhaps the most surprising sign of the new spirit came when Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, said that he “lifted his hat” to the British presidency.

Only six months earlier, at the June EU summit, an exhausted Mr Juncker ranted against Mr Blair for blocking his own attempts to broker a budget deal. At the December summit, Mr Blair praised Mr Juncker for doing a “very important job” in helping to find a deal.

There are several reasons for this outbreak of goodwill, the most basic of which is that EU leaders knew that another failed summit would plunge Europe into a black period of introspection.

But perhaps the main reason was Angela Merkel, the new German chancellor, who blew through the fetid corridors of the Justus Lipsius building like a refreshing blast of new air.

Some in Brussels had claimed Ms Merkel would not change much. Locked into a grand coalition, she would continue Germany’s dance of despair with Jacques Chirac, France’s president, to the detriment of relations with Britain and the new EU members.

They could not have been more wrong. She worked with Mr Chirac, but more importantly she told him when to back off - something which Mr Schröder seemed either unwilling or incapable of doing.

Like Helmut Kohl, Ms Merkel’s version of the Franco-German alliance was constructive and inclusive.

She went out of her way to include countries like Spain, Austria and Luxembourg in initiatives to broker a budget deal, and won huge credit in eastern Europe by agreeing to a higher budget, which German taxpayers will have to fund.

Finally, Ms Merkel managed to do all that while maintaining good relations with Mr Blair, raising hopes that the EU’s three most powerful countries - Britain, France and Germany - might finally be returning to a semblance of normality in their relations.

“Angela Merkel was sober, pragmatic and down-to-earth,” Wolfgang Schüssel, Austrian chancellor, told the FT. “We need Germany as a good and constructive player, and she played that role.” Suddenly the EU feels like it can do things again. The budget deal secured, heads of government appeared slightly light-headed.

Ms Merkel and even Tony Blair talked of the circumstances under which the EU’s half-dead constitution could be revived, in whole or in part.

But if the main result of the December summit is that the EU elite returns to its obsession with institutional reform, that would be a serious mistake.

As Mr Blair and Mr Schussel have argued, the first thing is for Europe to get back to basics and start doing things that citizens care about, like cutting unemployment, tackling illegal immigration and terrorism.

A period of solid achievement and confidence-building is required. After all, the constitution will remain in its shallow grave until at least 2007, when Mr Chirac’s wintry grip on the EU political scene is finally loosened.

There are plenty of things to do. Agreeing a serious directive to open the EU’s services market, for example. Or what about developing a European energy policy, raising research spending, improving EU universities and developing a European policy on economic migration?

These are things ordinary people care about. If Europe’s citizens see their leaders taking decisions in a cordial atmosphere and addressing their concerns, then they might eventually be ready to listen to arguments about the EU constitution. But not now.

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