17 Jun 2010

Cameron gets a gentle EU initiation – at least, so far

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – David Cameron has spent much of this morning sitting on the fifth floor of the European Council building in Brussels with no one else but the other 26 leaders of the EU countries (plus EU grandees Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission; Jerzy Buzek, the President of the European Parliament; the EU President and Foreign Affairs Representative; and one Commission minute-taker) in the room.

An “antici”, a key aide, one per head of government, can sit a panic press-button call away in the next-door room to answer questions or summon other aides… but the leaders are effectively on their own.

(Antici, by the way, are named after Paulo Antici, an Italian diplomat, who chaired the first meeting of these sherpas in 1975.)

These meetings of the heads of government can be critical. A country can spring a surprise wording in a text which they’ve secretly agreed with an alliance of countries. You have to spot it and react quickly.

David Cameron, luckily for him, looks like he’s getting a fairly gentle initiation. But you never know. He asked Chancellor Merkel earlier how best to handle yourself in these meetings – probably a courtesy question, he’ll have been getting a lot of advice from the British officials on this.

As things stand the Draft Communique is going to slip out without much trouble mid-afternoon. Not because Europe is agreed on exactly what it does to avoid future Greek-style crises but because it doesn’t have to decide yet. They have given themselves until October to conclude all this.

The EU President, Herman van Rompuy, who Tories welcomed last year as a low-key non-entity who wouldn’t let the job get out of hand, welcomed David Cameron to his first European Council and “this club”.

There was a time when David Cameron was threatening to bring a club to one of these events. Not right now. He’s got a Europhile coalition partner to keep on board and he’s got quite enough else on his plate. As long as Europe doesn’t come up with something that requires Britain to give more powers to the EU, a Tory non-negotiable, there won’t be trouble.

Government sources are suggesting that the sort of sanctions being considered for use against countries who aren’t controlling their deficits won’t require treaty changes, despite talk to the contrary in Berlin and Paris in recent days. The UK thinks the EU can simply use existing powers to withhold cohesion or structural funds from offenders. There could be a few more twists and turns in this before October.

David Cameron and the UK delegation arrived on foot for the Council meeting – his convoy of armour-plated, tinted-window vehicles driving in empty just behind him.

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