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Poul Skytte Christoffersen: The regatta model

Poul Skytte ChristoffersenPoul Skytte Christoffersen is a Danish diplomat with a career-long experience in the EU corridors of Brussels. From 1977-1980 he was first secretary of the Danish Permanent Representation to the EC. For the next 14 years, he worked as head of cabinet of the Secretary General of the Council of the European Union (1980-1994). From 1995 to 2003 he served as Danish Ambassador to the EC, and in this capacity was president of the Permanent Representatives Committee and EU Chief negotiator at the level of officials in the final phase of enlargement negotiations in 2002. He has also taught at Copenhagen University and the Copenhagen Business School. Since early 2006 Christoffersen is head of cabinet of EU Commissioner for Agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel.

Drawing on his extensive insider knowledge of the European administration in Brussels and his experience of the accession negotiation process, Christoffersen provides a unique first-hand account of what he calls the “saga of the latest enlargement” from the early 1990s to the conclusion of enlargement negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2002. It appears in the form of four chapters (75 pages) of a remarkable book, The Accession Story. The EU from Fifteen to Twenty-Five Countries, edited by George Vassiliou (The book also includes accounts of the chief negotiators of all 10 countries that acceded in 2004).

What makes Christoffersen’s texts special is a unique combination of detailed descriptions of technical structures and processes with first-hand insights into political processes and negotiations between the European Commission, the respective presidencies, member states and applicant countries. While he spends more time describing the later phases of the accession process, he covers the whole period from the early 1990s to 2002 and thus also provides a chronicle of the process as such.

Christoffersen’s text serves as an important reminder – to those who complain about enlargement fatigue – that the enlargement agenda has always been subject to internal EU dynamics, ups-and-downs, and difficult moments.

He recalls, for example, that after the Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum on 2 June 1992, “for a moment the uncertainty of the fate of the Maastricht Treaty threatened to prolong the period of introspective, and to block progress towards enlargement.” It was overcome only in May 1993, a month before the Copenhagen European Council, when a majority of Danes voted in favour of the Maastricht Treaty in a second referendum. Subsequently, negotiations with the EFTA countries, which had been put on hold, could be resumed, and a more open mindset with regard to further rounds of enlargement emerged.

Christoffersen also describes the differences in opinion ahead of the crucial Luxembourg European Council in December 1997. The Commission, backed by most member states, had proposed to start negotiations with six countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and Cyprus). But other member states, led by Sweden, Denmark and the UK, were reluctant to separate the countries into two groups.

“Leaving somebody behind – awaiting another ‘wave’ in an uncertain future – could take away the pressure for reform and modernisation in the countries left on the shore. Denmark and Sweden proposed the regatta model, where all the candidates were allowed to ‘set sail’ and participate in the enlargement negotiations. Each country’s efforts would then determine when they were able to conclude the negotiations.”

Eventually, at the Luxembourg European Council the “wave approach” carried the day. But several elements of the “regatta model” were introduced as well.

“The conclusions underlined that the accession process, involving the ten Central and East European applicant states and Cyprus, would be comprehensive and inclusive. All these states were destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria and would participate in the accession process on an equal footing. The European Council sought in this way to eliminate fears among the countries left behind that they might be subjected to stricter conditions when a judgement would be made in the future on the start of negotiations.”

Practically, this meant that all applicant countries would participate in the opening meeting of the enlargement negotiation process – and that all would be offered accession partnerships, technical assistance and financial support through the PHARE programme. “A special ‘catch-up’ facility was foreseen for those initially left behind.” Regular reports would be prepared for all applicant countries on an annual basis, and the five remaining countries would go through the analytical examination (called “screening”) of the EU acquis and local legislation, along with those applicant countries which were selected to start negotiations.

Christoffersen’s chapter on “Organisation of the Process and Beginning of the Negotiations”, contrasting formal EU structures with actual practice, can be considered the best available summary of the institutional structure, the mechanisms of the accession negotiations and the negotiation framework.

An interesting example of the difference between formal structure and actual practice are the possibilities of EU members to slow down the negotiation process. Before negotiation chapters could be opened with applicant countries, the EU member states had to agree on a common position.

“A Member State that desires to slow down the adhesion process can in theory draw out the technical examination. Despite the varying political sensitivities which existed in the Member States throughout the whole process of the fifth enlargement, there were however very few examples of such filibustering tactics. One of the characteristics of the Union machinery is that once it gets into motion it is in practice difficult to stop, and the political costs involved in working against the common objectives are great.”

At the end of 2000, the Commission drew up a road map, which was subsequently endorsed by the member states at the Nice European Council in December 2000. While receiving little public attention at the time, the road map proved crucial in sustaining momentum during the negotiations. It outlined a clear sequence for tackling outstanding issues during 2001 and 2002, also putting pressure on the EU to define common positions.

“The Commission’s approach [the road map] had a significant impact on the negotiations for the following two years. The tasks of each of the presidencies that would follow were spelled out, and the candidates received a welcome planning instrument. Any Member State that might be reluctant to go ahead on a specific chapter was placed in a difficult situation. If complete EU common positions were not ready by the specified timetable, the fault for the lack of progress would fall on the EU – and in particular on any country which blocked internal EU agreement.”

Christoffersen’s chapter on the Danish presidency (“The Danish Presidency: Conclusion of the Negotiations”) provides a detailed account of how the numerous remaining issues – from Kaliningrad and land purchase rights for EU citizens in the acceding countries to direct farm payments and the overall financial package – were overcome in the second half of 2002, during the last 6 months of negotiations. It’s a vivid description of a difficult balancing act involving the Commission, the Presidency, the member states and the accession countries. Once all open issues were on the table,

“the presidency and the Commission then started the meticulous exercise of examining each specific demand, to see what could be done. For the series of bilateral meetings that followed, the EU negotiation team had in its pocket suggestions for solutions to some of the minor problems that had been raised, as well as concessions on some of the agricultural quota issues. These were suggestions put forward on the presidency’s own responsibility. The Member States were being kept informed about the development in the negotiations, but the presidency deliberately did not seek a negotiation mandate. It was firmly convinced that the nature of the final stage of the negotiations, as well as the short time available, did not permit the application of normal negotiation procedures.”

At the European Council summit many issues, in particular finances, remained unresolved. Protracted negotiations proved necessary before the candidate countries’ representatives could enter the room late in the evening of the last day for the formal approval of the negotiation results.

“The Danish Queen had invited members of the European Council to dinner in the evening to celebrate the event, but the meeting had lasted too long, and the dinner had to be cancelled. In the end it was the Copenhagen riot police in full battledress, after having been engaged in controlling the demonstrations in Copenhagen (in the end very peaceful) during the day, that were invited to dinner in the royal apartments.”

  • Poul Skytte Christoffersen, chapters “The Preparation of the Fifth Enlargement”, “Organisation of the Process and Beginning of the Negotiations”, “From Helsinki to Seville, July 1999 – June 2002” and “The Danish Presidency: Conclusion of the Negotiations”, in George Vassiliou (ed.), The Accession Story. The EU from Fifteen to Twenty-Five Countries, Oxford Univ. Press, 2007, pp. 24-99.