© Babeth Albert

EU journalist Jan Werts: ‘For almost fifty years, I’ve wondered: who’s the boss in Europe?’

'At the height of a crisis, it is up to EU leaders to come up with solutions.' These are the words of Jan Werts (82), seasoned Dutch journalist, publicist, and Europe expert. And, over the past fifteen years, one crisis has followed another in rapid succession. The financial crisis, the Euro crisis, the migration crisis, the Brexit crisis, the coronavirus crisis, and now Ukraine. Cause for Follow the Money to talk to Werts about leadership in Europe in times of trouble.

Helicopters fly through the sky and sirens wail in the streets as police cars escort world leaders through the city. US President Joe Biden is in Brussels. It is March 24, and Biden is joining the European Council, the European Union’s main forum for discussion, to confer about the war in Ukraine. ‘The whole idea of ​​European unity matters. It's the best way to stop that guy (Russian President Vladimir Putin, eds.) who is committing war crimes,’ Biden says, standing next to Council President Charles Michel on the Europa building’s red carpet.

Here, on Brussels’ Rue de la Loi, the European Council meets several times a year. 27 European government leaders and heads of state debate the continent’s course, often until the dead of night. These are also the times when the European Council increases its power, by rewriting the rules. This is apparent from the third and most recent book Werts has written about the meetings of the most powerful politicians in Europe.

The interview takes place in the Justus Lipsius building, where around a thousand journalists gathered last week to report on the summit happening in the adjacent Europa building. The EU summits have been held there since 2017. Here, Werts, his slight stature dressed in a jacket, knows his way around. He walks towards a staircase leading to the first floor. ‘There are a few benches there, that I tend to use for interviews. It's a quiet place.’

He places a stack of papers on a table, along with a sheet of notes on what he wants to discuss. During the conversation, Werts tries to limit himself to the political developments of the past fifteen years. But every now and then, the éminence grise of the Brussels journaille can’t resist delving deeper into history. Into a time long gone, when journalists were showered with presents during EU summits and ended up in bars with the wives of government leaders.

in the past decade, there’s been a crisis every year. All too often, the European Council finds itself with its back against the wall

The Russian invasion of Ukraine started over a month ago. Is the painful conclusion that the EU is incapable of ending the conflict on its eastern border?

‘Everyone – the media as well as experts – thinks that Europe is stumbling from one crisis to another. That is not true. The European Union has proven to be more crisis-resistant than people think it is. Each crisis is solved in one way or another. It’s not always the perfect solution, but you can’t expect that from a union of 27 countries with 27 different interests. But the crisis surrounding Ukraine cannot be solved by the European Union. This is an issue between Russia and Ukraine. The EU can respond, but it cannot play a deciding role. What could happen, however, is that this crisis changes Europe.’

In which way, do you think?

‘What I’m seeing now, is that French President Macron’s program, which he first presented five years ago, in response to Trump’s protectionist ‘America First’ policy, is gaining traction across the rest of the EU. It involves more European independence, more autonomy, for instance in the production of chips and batteries, more emphasis on defense, and less dependence on Russian oil and gas.’

As far back as 2014, there were calls for reducing Europe’s dependency on Russian power. Nothing came of it. Will it happen this time?

‘The European Council only concerns itself with broad strokes. Details come later. So it remains to be seen how, once this crisis is over, details are worked out at a lower level. Currently, no concrete decisions have been made.’

‘Sooner or later, we as Europe will have to stabilize our relationship with Russia. Russia isn’t going anywhere – they're our big neighbour’

Werts also has doubts about the ambition to become completely independent of Russian energy. ‘Sooner or later, we as Europe will have to stabilize our relationship with Russia. At the end of the day, Russia isn’t going anywhere – they're our big neighbour. Whatever happens with Ukraine, a modus vivendi will have to be found. We depend on Russia for several raw materials. I have my doubts whether, in the long term, we'll become entirely independent from Russian gas and oil. It is telling that, despite the EU’s row with Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Nord Stream 2 project continued.’

What has been the effect of the war in Ukraine on European defense policy?

‘The 27 countries never agree on foreign policy, they haven’t for seventy years. Interests and priorities diverge too much to reach unanimous decisions. There are a few exceptions – like now, with the invasion of Ukraine, and in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea – but the EU does not have a real foreign policy.

Without a clear foreign policy, one can't work towards a defense policy. There is no right to command. Now, it looks as though the order is being reversed, while defense ought to be the final piece of the puzzle.’

Whenever major decisions are taken within the EU, it’s always during a crisis. And time and again, it’s the government leaders and heads of state who make the decision, during European summits. They lead, and the other EU institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament – ​​follow. Werts observes this in his book The European Council in the Era of Crises.

Werts was there, almost fifty years ago, when EU leaders first met as European Council, in a castle in Dublin, the Irish capital. At the time, a European summit consisted of a fancy dinner, and any journalists who had come along were pampered. Since then, the European Council has grown into an administrative machine that determines the course of the EU. More and more powerful, more and more formal, searching more and more for the limits of his power.

For your book, you spoke with the first permanent president of the European Council, the Belgian Herman van Rompuy. He says,’'The only time we are capable of making big decisions is when we are standing with our back to the wall, looking in the abyss, and with a knife at our throat.’

‘It’s always been that way. But in the past decade, there’s been a crisis every year. These days, the European Council all too often finds itself with its back against the wall.

In a crisis, at some point, a decision has to be made. Take the euro crisis, for instance. Germany, the Netherlands, and a number of other countries did not want the Greek troubles to cause the euro to be cast in a bad light throughout the world. Or, god forbid, that the euro would capsize. A decision had to be made that would leave an impression on the financial markets. Government leaders who opposed – with Angela Merkel leading the way – eventually gave in when the pressure became too great. That’s how it goes, time and time again.

Look at the coronavirus recovery fund. At first, Merkel said that there would be no Eurobonds in her lifetime. But come they did, although they won’t call them that. The European Commission issues a loan, and if it is not repaid, the Member States are liable. So, really, they are just Eurobonds.

In the current crisis surrounding Ukraine, too, the question is: what will Germany do? Will the new government in Berlin follow the ambitious French president Macron?’

Does everything depend on what is decided in Paris and Berlin?

‘Whenever France and Germany join forces, it’s very difficult for small countries to present an alternative view at a European summit. The coronavirus recovery fund is a clear example of this. The proposal came from France and Germany. The Netherlands was very much against these Eurobonds. Officially, it’s not allowed. That’s written. Countries are never to be held accountable for another country's debt, even after the introduction of the euro.’

Then how did it happen?

‘They circumvented the rules, and not for the first time. When, in 2010, Greece was in serious trouble, Greek Prime Minister Papandreou came to the European Council and said: “My predecessors have always claimed a deficit of 4 percent, but in reality, it is 14 percent. We are bankrupt. Sorry.” This was the first meeting chaired by Herman van Rompuy. He then devised a formula: if a country were to go bankrupt, the other countries would do everything they could to prevent it. But you still then have to work out that formula.

Within the EU, no one is more powerful than the government leaders who make up the European Council

Three months later, it was decided that there would be loans for Greece, with a European Union guarantee. But because that is against the treaty, they said that it was not to save Greece but to save the euro. And the treaty doesn’t say you can’t save the euro. So they pretty much just swam around the rules.’

Is that what the European Council is doing, stretching rules and perhaps even breaking them?

‘That’s right. They are also the only ones who can do that. Within the EU, no one is more powerful than the government leaders who make up the European Council. They can interpret the rules any way they want, or even invent new ones. And they do.

To give another example: at the time of the euro crisis, there was a desire to meet with only the euro countries – i.e. without the EU countries that had not adopted the currency. Really, they would have had to amend the treaty for that. Instead, they simply decided there would be a separate eurozone summit. It’s not written anywhere that organizing a different kind of summit, apart from the standard European Council, is against the rules.’

So the European Council tends to get rather creative with its own rules?

‘Yes, and yet that is not a strange thing. Everything they do here in Brussels is based on treaties. Who makes those treaties? The European Council. These are the heads of state and government leaders. If these folks, if I may call them that, make a deal like that, they don't have to ask the European Parliament or the European Commission for approval. The only place where they are accountable is at home, with the national parliaments.’

Isn't that a very flawed form of accountability? 

‘It’s quite a flawed form of accountability. But when they’re really stuck, like with Greece, they can get away with it, and in those cases, they will do it.’

No one country can shut down the entire machinery. Once a decision has been made, it must be implemented. We can’t have one country saying: I won’t do it

And then, after making a decision like that, a government leader goes back to his own parliament to ask for permission. But the agreement has already been made with 26 other countries. So what can a national parliament do about it?

‘Not much. That is how we lost five or six government leaders during the euro crisis. They went home and their parliament disapproved of what had been decided in Brussels. But – and here’s the thing – that doesn't change the decision that has already been made.’

Isn't that exactly what drives EU skepticism, and whatt widens the divide between citizens and Brussels?

‘The fact is, we are in that boat together, and no one country can shut down the entire machinery. Once a decision has been made, it must be implemented. We can’t have one country saying: I won’t do it. This consensus in the European Council is so important, nobody can really compete with that.’

It’s not easy for the public or journalists to get a good look at what goes on during a European summit. There are no cameras present, nor are there public records. Does this lack of transparency pose a problem? 

‘There are four reasons why the lack of transparency does not pose a big problem. 

Firstly, after a European summit, all leaders explain to their countries’ media outlets what has been discussed – literally on the doorstep of the European Council. Secondly, in the European Parliament, before and after a summit, there is an extensive debate with the presidents of both the European Council [Charles Michel, eds.] and the European Commission [Ursula von der Leyen, eds.]. Thirdly, all government leaders and heads of state are accountable to their national parliaments.

‘So in terms of transparency, things aren’t all that bad, actually.’

And my last point: every decision made during a summit is then further discussed in great detail because the European Council does not legislate. It all has to be worked out and approved by the European Commission, the Member States, and the European Parliament. So in terms of transparency, things aren’t all that bad, actually. The European Council is not a black box, everything is eventually made public.’

When you read the agreements made during a European summit, you notice they are often expressed in very vague terms. Why is that?

‘Vague agreements indicate differences of opinion, disagreements. These are circumvented by expressing an agreement in terms that are so vague that, later on, when it gets into the hands of the ministers of the Member States and the European Parliament, it turns out it can’t be put into practice. That has been the case with energy policy, with migration… It has happened many times. But that’s justifiable. There is a problem that is politically unsolvable, so it remains unsolved. Sometimes, a few years on, the situation has changed and it can be solved then.’

Is it also justifiable if it means that a problem is left unaddressed for years?

‘Slowing down the decision-making process is a strategy in and of itself. The ambitions of the European Commission, which puts forth the proposals, are much greater than those of government leaders. The Member States do not want Brussels to be given too much power, because that comes at the expense of their own authority. It’s a common refrain with the European Council’s efforts: blocking proposals until a problem resolves itself. And only make a decision if and when a crisis grows so big that inaction is no longer an option.’

You have been visiting the summits for almost 50 years and wrote three books about the European Council. What about it is so fascinating for you?

‘In my books, I try to find an answer to the question of who’s the boss in the EU. De Gaulle wanted to set up a European Council as early as 1961. But the Netherlands, along with Belgium and Luxembourg, were very much opposed. They fought against it for decades.

Why? They feared, and rightly so, that Germany and France would end up with all the power. The small countries already had some experience with this, because before the European Council really started – in the period between 1957 and 1974 – there were also nine summits. At these, it was always the case that the German chancellor and the French president presented their plans, and then the small countries would essentially have to take them or leave them.’

Is that still the case?

‘That brings me to the discovery I made while writing my last book. For a long time, the European Council was independent and strong. But now, the Council has now truly become a part of the EU’s decision-making machine. Everything that happens there is meticulously prepared. With input from the Netherlands, Belgium, and all the small countries.’

Is that a way to curtail Franco-German power?

‘I no longer hear about any objections from the small countries. Certainly not since the Lisbon Treaty. There is now a permanent chair, Charles Michel. He, along with the ambassadors of the 27 governments and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, prepares every EU summit in detail. Since then, the German Chancellor and the French President can no longer simply toss a notepad onto the table and say: We came up with this and that.’

That’s no longer possible?

‘It’s not even allowed. New proposals or agenda items now need to be introduced at least a week before the European Council. I’m not saying it never happens, but the rules don’t allow it.'

In 2013, I said Europe would crash and burn, but these days my outlook is more positive

So on one side, there is the great power of Germany and France. And on the other side, there are the small countries, trying to limit Paris and Berlin’s power by adding more and more little rules?

‘That’s right. And I would add that when I came to Brussels in the mid-seventies, the whole thing was entirely jammed up. In the UK, Labour was in power. The English ministers did not come to Brussels to make decisions, but to make trouble. Even when they supported the plans, they obstructed the proceedings. The EU was completely stuck. Then came an oil crisis, a crisis in the Middle East, an economic crisis: all at once. 1974 was a crisis year and the European Union had no answers.

German Chancellor Schmidt and French President Giscard d’Estaing, looking for a solution, suggested that all European leaders meet on a regular basis. For France, this had been a long-held wish, but now was the time to realize it. In my experience, French diplomats always think three steps ahead. It took a crisis to set up the European Council.

The small countries that feared the great power of the great countries were placated. The Belgian Prime Minister raised his hand and asked where these meetings of government leaders and heads of state should take place. The French president seized this opportunity and said: In your country, of course, in Brussels.’

‘It seems like, these days, everything is a Chefsache

Does France seize every crisis to fulfill its European wishes?

‘They’ll always confide in the Germans and don’t allow themselves to be lectured by the reluctant Dutch. France and Germany play a dominant role, but with the caveat that they cannot impose their will on the 25 others.’

And with each crisis, the European Council gains a little more power? 

‘Yes. They coined the word Chefsache for this: problems that can only be solved by the government leaders and heads of state. It seems like, these days, everything is a Chefsache. Regarding this, one insider told me that no one in the Brussels meeting circuit takes any project seriously unless it has first passed the European Council.’

Over the past 15 years, during which Europe has repeatedly faced crises, have you changed your mind about the EU?

‘In 2013, I said Europe would crash and burn, but these days my outlook is more positive. I am sure that Europe would have been a lot worse off without the European Council. The crises would not have been resolved without it. Only government leaders, supported by a majority in their national parliaments, have the legitimacy to dictate a course in times of trouble. Neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament has that legitimacy among citizens.

The biggest problem for the European Union as a whole is the divide between it and the citizens. They don’t have a clue what goes on in Brussels. So far, no one has managed to find a solution for this. Thus, you have to think very carefully before transferring national powers to Brussels.’

[The original article was published in Dutch, on April 27. Translation: Chris Kok.]