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9th Dec 2023

New TV documentary: How Europe got its first president

  • European top politics is a "humorous and grotesque world" (Photo: European Commission)

How did the post of European president get to be created? And how did someone completely unknown to most Europeans end up in it?

This is the story revealed in a new TV documentary, 'The President', a film by Danish director Christoffer Guldbrandsen.

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Guldbrandsen and his crew travelled the continent for almost two years to gather material for the film.

They interviewed dozens of the key figures of the time, including former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French president Giscard d'Estaing, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, as well as a number of civil servants.

The hour-long film presents the struggle by Europe's top politicians to get a president elected. The story begins in Copenhagen where the EU's 'big bang' enlargement towards the east was agreed in 2002.

Ten new member states were taken onboard as a result. This created a need for more efficient decision-making structures including a president of the European Council to represent the EU abroad and build consensus among big-egoed national leaders.

Using footage from the time, the documentary takes the viewer through the drafting of the European Constitution, a document that was killed off by French and Dutch voters but later resurrected as the Lisbon Treaty.

Along the way, the film replays some of the European dramas of the time, such as when Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi suggested German Social Democrat MEP Martin Schulz for the role of capo in a film on Nazi concentration camps.

It reveals for the first time how German and French leaders, Schroeder and Chirac, agreed at a breakfast not to give Berlusconi the honour of striking a deal on the European Constitution during the Italian EU presidency.

Schroeder and Chirac got their way. And Berlusconi devoted the then constitution-less summit to entertaining the heads of state and government with his jokes instead.

Another political drama explored in the film was the legendary Franco-German deal on farm subsidies in 2006. Struck between Chirac and Schroeder in Brussels' fashionable Hotel Conrad ahead of a full EU leaders' summit, it took everybody by surprise, particularly the Brits.

Ostensibly a bilateral deal, it was a mystery what Germany got out of it. In the film Schroeder admits to being hoodwinked by the French president. Chirac helped him maintain face. The French leader presented the deal in public as being 95 percent of what Berlin wanted.

A 'humorous and grotesque world'

European top politics is a "humorous and grotesque world", Guldbrandsen told a Copenhagen audience invited for a pre-screening of the film on Thursday.

"An academic version of [American TV reality programme] Paradise Hotel, where everyone is accustomed to getting his own way."

Guldbrandsen met Joschka Fischer several times and said he had expected him to be ‘Clinton-like', in reference to the charismatic former US president. But instead Fischer was quite hard work.

It took a nice book on art and pickled herrings from Bornholm before the former Green activist thawed a little. And then he was delightfully indiscreet.

"Few people are as snide and sarcastic as Fischer. It's been such a pleasure to work with him," Guldbrandsen said at the film-screening event.

For his part, Herman Van Rompuy, the man who eventually became EU president, notes how he turned down the post three times.

But in the end, faced with 26 other leaders urging him to take the job, he gave in. In doing so, the former Belgian prime minister and part-time Haiku poet beat one of Europe's most renowned politicians to the job.

Tony Blair, previously Britain's prime minister, was for a long time seen as a serious contender whose political standing would give Europe a central role in the new world order.

Despite being centre-left, Blair had the backing of Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right French president. Ultimately however, Blair's own party allies in the Social Democrat group in the European Parliament blocked the road, the film reveals.

This was seen as a big loss by some. According to former commission president Romano Prodi, Europe missed a unique opportunity to establish itself on the global stage.

Entering politics at the age of 54, Prodi also reveals how surprised he was to learn that personal relations often mean more than national interests among political leaders.

The TV documentary, produced for DR-Dokumania with support of the Danish Film Institute and the EU Media Programme, will be shown to the public for the first time on Tuesday (12 April) on Danish TV, DR2-Dokumania. To date it has been sold for broadcast in twelve other countries.

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