Is the European Council a Death Boring or an Exciting Summitry?


Thatcher gives him her best smile every day, as do Kohl, Adenauer, Monnet, Schuman and Mitterrand. From his wall-to-wall bookshelves obviously, as even Peter Ludlow – the man dubbed “Brussels’ ultimate insider” by the Financial Times – does not have direct contact with the afterlife. However, what he does have is unique access to key European players, both in Brussels and the national capital cities. From his study, complete with Persian carpet and ubiquitous stacks of paper, Ludlow, 74, has for many decades, been the sole chronicler of EU summits. Chunky reports of 40-50 pages, full of relevant details and anecdotes that are eagerly read by normal insiders: the prime ministers of smaller countries, Brussels diplomats, EU civil servants and journalists.

How exciting are the EU summits?

“Some summits can bore you to death, especially the tour de tables, the compulsory table rounds in which each prime minister has to have his or her say. Not all leaders are gifted speakers. But a summit remains a major event. When some 30 prime ministers, presidents and other European leaders come to Brussels they don’t spend two days lounging around. Sometimes the debate is furious and it becomes apparent how Merkel and ECB President Mario Draghi lay down the foundations for policy. And of course there are more private meetings in the corridors, in which leaders come to agreements among one another.”

The most important part of a EU summit – the leaders’ dinner – is a closed affair. No minutes secretaries are present to take notes of the debate, as that would only make the leaders wary and frustrate negotiations. While there are personal notes from a prime minister, confidential text messages and emails from the dining hall via smartphones to close colleagues, a literal record of the dinner debate, on the basis of which a leader can be held accountable, does not exist.

Openness isn’t much better in the government leaders’ formal working sessions (before dinner). However, minutes secretaries from the Secretariat of the Council of Europe, which organises the summits, do attend these sessions. They report almost verbatim and take turns in walking to an adjacent room where they are eagerly awaited by the advisors to the ambassadors of the EU countries. What happens then is much like the old game of Chinese whispers: The minutes secretary tells the advisor, who tells his own top diplomats, who then inform the diplomatic rank and file, after which the press can start spinning. Just as with the game, the final message differs considerably from the original. The only public document is the conclusions agreed during the summit, which includes the decisions.

Is it not strange that decisions that have consequences for 500 million Europeans are made behind closed doors?

“Well, I actually consider it very open and accessible. A good journalist finds a way. Naturally, at the end of the summit, Rutte will attempt to sell the Dutch story and Holland the French, but you can shop around freely and easily.”

The impression is given that every summit is a success and every leader the winner. That is far from the reality, though.

“But that happens at national level, too. In London, during the last Labour government, you got the impression that Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown were in totally different meetings. Of course, all 28 EU leaders want to show how important they are. But there is no lack of openness in Brussels. So many interests, so many leaks. When I arrived in Brussels in the late 1970s, a colleague said to me, “If it says ‘confidential’ on a memorandum, that’s rubbish. If it says ‘highly confidentially’, then you can be sure that everyone’s got it. What you want is the documents that say nothing. That takes good sources, and time. That’s my advantage: I’ve got three, four weeks for my story; a journalist three, four hours.”

Again: Why are the EU summits not public?

“The seclusion is part of the set-up; it’s intended to make it clear to the leaders that they – and they alone – are responsible for the decisions. No ‘Help from mummy!’”

Very exceptionally, they are allowed to call in an advisor for one or two minutes. British premier Major, who was not exactly overflowing with self-confidence, never lived down the fact that he once had his advisor hidden under the table. A little man. Physically, at any rate. The other leaders were furious when they found out.

“Apart from that, confidentiality is necessary to arrive at decisions. You can’t rule a country, let alone the EU, entirely publicly. It doesn’t work if you have cameras; politicians have to be able to negotiate unhindered. The EU summit is not a parliament; it’s Europe’s government.”

Is there a big difference between the premiers’ press conferences at the end of the summit and your reconstruction?

“Absolutely. If you listen to Cameron, or Hollande or his predecessor Sarkozy, then you get the impression that he was the most important man in the room, that everyone was dancing to his tune. That’s the image they want to show at home. It’s unbelievable how those vain little men inflate themselves, followed and believed by journalists they have carefully selected, who are allowed to sit in the front row and ask them questions. A well-known French journalist once wrote that Sarkozy had saved the euro and Merkel did everything he told her to. Well, if you believe that you’ll believe anything. Merkel’s press conferences are more useful. Merkel is so much smarter than all those men around the table; she really knows her dossiers. She doesn’t have to brag about having won. She simply won.”

*Read the article in Presseurop.

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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