EU summitry - a useful evil
By Honor Mahony
It's easy to be exasperated by the EU's seemingly endless capacity to have summits - a capacity that has stretched still further with the eurozone crisis.
EU leaders travel to Brussels for one of two types of meetings. There is the frantic gathering to fix the latest crisis or the more regular get-together, where sometimes even the summit attendees struggle to justify the meeting.
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Both are endurance tests. They start early in the evening and rarely end before the small hours of the next morning - regardless of the panic factor.
Afterwards each leader holds a press conference. Accounts of what was agreed have been known to differ profoundly.
Then everyone trundles home again knowing that, whatever the uncertainties of the eurozone crisis, the inevitability of the next summit remains a constant.
This choreography elicits much grumbling from observers.
The most recent summit (13-14 December) was a good example.
EU leaders went home after agreeing little. Ambitious pre-summit conclusions were whittled down to a shadow of what they had been.
In all, it was a far cry from the 10-year plan on economic and monetary union called for earlier this year by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi.
But the conclusions were typical of other apparent non-summits. In amongst the diplomatic language, non-committal sentences, and liberal use of the conditional tense, were some, if not concrete then pretensions to concrete, undertakings for more integration.
This time it was language on starting common legislation for winding up banks, including a way to make sure taxpayers do not foot the bill.
EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy freely admitted after the meeting that he had no idea where the initial public money for a backstop fund – mentioned in the conclusions - was going to come from. This will be dealt with at another summit.
From the outside there seems to be more madness than method. But that is to deny the inexorable incremental effect of these ceaseless summits, of which there are at least four per year.
The path to last’s week agreement on both the single supervisor for European banks and further steps to banking union was a result of this summit psychology.
Draghi’s comments in Spring about the need for a political plan for the eurozone started things moving. Shortly afterwards, EU leaders at their May summit found themselves agreeing to a line in the conclusions saying Van Rompuy should draft a report on economic and monetary union.
The first report came during the June European Council. The same meeting then decided that there should be an interim report in October and a final report in December.
The reports were – to all intents and purposes – ignored. Member states were not even asked to do so benign a thing as to “welcome” them.
But EU officials are convinced that the mere presence of such papers mean controversial items, such as the single supervisory mechanism (SSM) for European banks (agreed by finance ministers and then endorsed at last week's summit) get put on the table and agreed.
This is seen as particularly important now that market pressure has eased off. When investors are not scaring politicians, something else needs to keep the process going.
That is where these meetings, reports, conclusions, and agreements to hold more meetings come in. The “lightening speed” deal - as one EU official recently put it - deal on the single banking supervisor, for example, took shape over six months.
The idea was mentioned in the June European Council statement. The commission came with a proposal in September. In October EU leaders said they would agreed a framework by the end of the year. By mid-December, despite some substantial bumps on the way, this had been achieved.
Last week's summit did not stand out as the worst of summits. It was not the best of them either. What it was though, was the perfect example of the EU's incremental, no grand plan, path towards further economic integration.
There was no text on creating a eurozone budget or mutualising eurozone debt. These are the big bang issues. But they are not yet ripe enough for discussion.
Other issues did make it to the next phase however. Contractual arrangements - deep reforms plans for all euro states to be agreed with the European Commission - caused a furore when first mentioned just a few months ago. The idea has now been accepted. The bank resolution plan will start to take early shape in 2013.
And the ferociously complicated details of such plans - well that's for later. At a summit down the road.