25th Mar 2018

'Antici protocols' shed light on EU crisis summits

EU summits are a tiresome affair. The Cypriot President had to install a bed in his delegation room to take a nap now and then during the all-nighters discussing Greek bailouts or other pressing euro-matters.

France's Nicolas Sarkozy preferred caffeine. He instructed his diplomats to install a Nespresso machine in the delegation room. He also brought along his own cook because he disliked Belgian cuisine.

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"Europa's Strippenzieher," meaning "The ones pulling the strings in Europe" - a book to be launched on Thursday (27 February) in Berlin - is full of such quirky details.

Its authors, Cerstin Gammelin and Raimund Loew - the Brussels correspondents of German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Austrian broadcaster ORF - also managed to obtain secret transcripts of the almost monthly EU summits held during 2010-2013 at the height of the euro-crisis.

They are called Antici protocols and are the only official - but secret - records of the meetings.

Antici is Brussels jargon for a national diplomat who keeps records of what is being said at the summits. The name derives from Paolo Massimo Antici, an Italian diplomat in the 1970s, who invented the system. It is mostly based on hearsay. The EU council's Antici diplomat, who sits at the table with the EU leaders, gets out every 15 minutes to report to the national Anticis what has been said. While he is out, another Antici colleague replaces him.

"No Antici writer has heard with his own ears what he is writing, but these protcols are the closest to a verbatim of the leaders' discussions," the book says.

The protocols document the power brokerage led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who mostly got her way in every meeting.

For most of the crisis meetings, she could count on Sarkozy to back her up.

A record of the October 2011 summit shows that British Prime Minister David Cameron called for "big and bold actions" - meaning a €2-3 trillion permanent bailout fund.

But Sarkozy and Merkel ganged up against him.

“[Cameron] missed a good opportunity to shut up. We are fed up with you criticising us constantly and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro, but you are getting involved in our sessions," says Sarkozy.

Merkel is more diplomatic, but also firm: "We leave the fund at what we agreed, without going to €2,000 and up to €3,000 billion, or we agree that non-euro countries also pay up."

Cameron gets the message and says nothing further. The "European Stability Mechanism" is set up with €500 billion.

Its predecessor, the temporary bailout fund, the EFSF, was created in 2010 for the Irish and Portuguese bailouts to the tune of €440 billion.

An EU diplomat involved in the negotiations recounts how they came up with the final figure: "We thought we would need €200 billion. And calculated that the Germans would hammer down half of it. Fearing this and knowing that €100 billion will never be enough, we doubled to €400 billion. Then we added 10 percent so that together with the €60 billion of the EU commission we would arrive at €500 billion. And we were perplexed when the Germans didn't cut anything."

It was a rare moment of German generosity.

Two other transcripts - the 2010 March and October summits - show how tough a negotiator Merkel is.

In March she refuses to give more money to EU poverty reduction goals, despite a fiery discussion and a majority of countries in favour. European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso seeks a political accord that by 2020 EU countries should reduce by 20 million the number of people hit by poverty and social exclusion.

"There will be no consent from Germany on poverty reduction. It may sound rough, but this is no EU competence, this is national competence," Merkel says, adding that the Bundestag will never agree to such an EU target, as it would require extra financial resources.

Only the Netherlands are backing her. Sarkozy is quiet. Austria, normally a German ally, is on Barroso's side. So are Greece and Portugal.

In the end, a compromise is found at the suggestion of EU veteran Jean-Claude Juncker, at the time the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. The definition of poverty is broadened, so that more people are included and the 20 million target can be reached more easily. Merkel can subscribe to that.

A few months later, after having agreed to the first Greek bailout but frustrated that the country is not delivering on its commitments, Merkel suggests a shocking solution: breaches of the deficit rules to be treated equally to human rights breaches.

"Article 7 [of the EU treaty] foresees possibility to withdraw voting rights in very serious situations. This is not a public humiliation, when you see that you endanger the euro, all euro-countries and ultimately the very existence of the EU," she said on 28 October 2010.

Article 7 - suspending the voting rights of a country in the EU council - was introduced in the EU treaty after Austria formed a coalition government with a far-right party, prompting a boycott by EU countries who saw this as a breach of human rights, freedom and democracy.

"We accepted article 7 for human rights violations. We have to show the same degree of seriousness when we deal with the euro issue," Merkel adds.

The Romanian President, Traian Basescu, is the first to object. "This situation cannot be equated to a violation of human rights," he says.

Luxembourg, Spain, Greece are also outraged.

Only Sarkozy backs Merkel, again. "Suspending voting rights is mentioned in the treaty, this is not unreasonable," he says.

EU council chief Herman Van Rompuy concludes that "we must analyse this issue further", as the discussion is not ripe for a decision.

She may have been too blunt then, but over the years Merkel has perfected her way of getting more strings attached to every bailout or concession she agreed to.

Even at the June 2012 summit, when France - now represented by President Francois Hollande - teamed up with Italy and Spain and managed to get Merkel to agree to the bailout fund being used directly to save banks, she managed to delay the process by extra conditions so that in the end it never happened.

With Juncker stepping down at the end of 2013, Merkel is now the longest-serving Prime Minister of an EU country.

The book speculates that when the EU Council chief mandate is up for renewal in 2017, Merkel could be the one to take it over, as it will be only half a year before the German elections.

But the authors also question this scenario: "Can Merkel be as powerful in Brussels as she is in Berlin? Won't she have to be a subordinate of the new German Chancellor as the current EU chief is now?"

Something for future Antici protocols to clarify.


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