Peter Ludlow: The Making of the New Europe

“The fifth enlargement was an impressive demonstration of how effective the European Union’s strange, hybrid, European Council-centred system can be.”

Peter Ludlow is a historian and the prototype of a Brussels insider. Educated at Oxford, Cambridge and Göttingen, he taught history at the University of London and at the European University Institute in Florence. In 1981, after 15 years in academia, he became the founding director of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. Though he retired from CEPS in 2001, Ludlow remains a close observer of the EU policy process. His books and briefing notes on every European Council since 1999 make for some of the most insightful reading on the practice of EU policy making.

One of Peter Ludlow’s most thorough pieces of work is The Making of the New Europe, an analytical description of the European Councils in Brussels and Copenhagen in the second half of 2002. Across more than 350 pages Ludlow tells a story of complex negotiations, clashes of interest, key decisions and compromises that led to what he calls “a peaceful revolution”.

The Brussels and Copenhagen summits determined that ten comparatively poor and young democracies would be admitted as EU members in May 2004. The EU heads of state also set the goal for Bulgaria and Romania to accede by 2007. They also promised to start negotiations with Turkey (pending a positive assessment of Ankara’s progress in 2004), acknowledged the membership aspirations of the Western Balkan countries, secured an agreement with Russia over Kaliningrad, and removed the final obstacles to an agreement between the EU and NATO.

“Separately each development is important. Taken together, they constitute an event of global significance. Europe, for so long the scene of divisions and conflict, has voluntarily and peacefully created structures in which Europeans of the most varied backgrounds, representing virtually every country of a highly populated continent, can live together in peace and forge a common destiny.”

Ludlow is well aware of the scope of the accession process. “EU membership requires a controlled revolution in politics, government, the economy and society. Changes of this order need time to effect and time to monitor.” His book, though, focuses on the “climax” of this process. It is a story of initiative, leadership, and the European way of making big decisions.

“The fifth enlargement was an impressive demonstration of how effective the European Union’s strange, hybrid, European Council-centred system can be.”

Ludlow’s book fills the often seemingly dull and protracted policy process with actors, life and drama. Its strength lies in Ludlow’s insightful accounts of the manifold policy dynamics that led to the successful conclusion of the Copenhagen Council.

EU enlargement has always been characterised by reluctance on the part of the old member states. Ludlow reminds us that Malta and Cyprus had to wait three years for an avis on their membership applications. The even tried to keep the rich EFTA countries from applying for full membership.

“The great majority of those whom EC leaders hoped to buy off with less than full membership did not find the alternatives that the were offered sufficiently attractive … Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden, while going through the motions of EEA negotiations, applied for membership all the same.”

There was never much enthusiasm for the fifth enlargement either. In 2002, only one out of two EU citizens supported enlargement; three in ten were against. Many citizens of the old member states, Ludlow points out, were deeply ignorant about enlargement. A special poll (Eurobarometer 57) conducted in 2002 delivered stunning results:

“A staggering 74% of those polled in the UK could not name a single candidate country correctly, while 51% admitted that they had not been aware of the enlargement of the EU before the interview with the pollster. It is hard to believe that these low levels of knowledge were a factor explaining the low level of support for enlargement in the UK. Ignorance could, however, work the other way. Even though 74% of the Portuguese who were polled failed, like their counterparts in Britain, to name a single candidate, 57% thought that enlargement was a good thing. In Spain too, a lot of people appeared to like what they did not know: 64% were in favour of enlargement, but 69% did not know any of the countries involved. Ignorance could in other words be bliss.”

Many governments were just as unenthusiastic about enlargement, particularly with regard to its price tag. Ludlow recounts in detail the budget negotiations and the efforts by the Danish EU Presidency to reconcile the member states to the expectations of the applicant countries. The sums involved, close to 41 billion Euros for the years 2004-2006, sound huge. Yet compared to the size and economic power of the Union, Ludlow points out, the package looks much less generous:

“As a percentage of EU GDP, the Commission reckoned that the net bill was less than 0.05%. Given the huge economic as well as political benefits that can be expected to flow from enlargement, this is to put it mildly a modest outlay.”

The financial cost of enlargement, however, remained one of the most contested issues until the very end of the negotiations. Masterminding a compromise and closing the deal required patience and skills. Both the Commission and a number of EU Presidencies, particularly the Danish one, played a key role.

“The final stages of the enlargement story, and more particularly the last six months of 2002, provided an impressive example of just how well the EU system can work, if those in charge know what they want to do.”

Bringing the positions of 15 member states and 10 applicant countries into line was a difficult undertaking, particularly since every member state had veto power over any agreement.

“The most important consideration was .. that the obligations set out in successive treaties simply could not be ignored. Article O of the Treaty of Maastricht adapted, but safeguarded the essentials of the message contained in article 237 of the Treaty of Rome and article 205 of the Treaty of Paris. ‘Any European state may apply to become a Member of the Union’ … EU 12 could not shut the door indefinitely in the face of a growing number of actual and potential candidates without violating its own birthright. An ‘organised and vital Europe’, of which the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe were not full members, would be a contradiction in terms. No government or institution wanted in the end to go down in history as having blocked the reunification of Europe.”

Looking back, Ludlow asserts that “the closer in fact that one looks at the fifth enlargement, the more obvious it becomes that the EU had no alternative if it was to maintain any semblance of consistency with its founding treaties and its self-proclaimed ambitions.”

A first crucial step towards a more proactive line on enlargement came with the appointment of the Prodi Commission in 1999. The Commission’s attitude changed quickly from a “somewhat lukewarm supporter of the candidate countries” to one of “their most vigorous champions”. Ludlow credits Prodi not only for advocating an EU membership perspective for the Western Balkans, but also for changing the whole enlargement dynamic, most notably through the appointment of Günter Verheugen to the newly created post of enlargement commissioner and the establishment of a new enlargement directorate general led by Eneko Landaburu.

In autumn 1999, the new Commission recommended that the EU open accession negotiations with all applicants that met the Copenhagen political criteria. The heads of state did just that at the Helsinki European Council. In 2000 the Commission developed a roadmap setting out priorities for negotiations until mid-2002.

At least as important was the role of the Danish presidency from July to December 2002 (as already in 1993 when for the first time a serious membership perspective was opened for the Central and East European countries). Ludlow calls it “arguably one of the most effective EU presidencies ever.”

The Danes had a very tight timeline and needed to bring about agreement on a huge number of contested issues, from the financial package for enlargement to demands for CAP reform to a solution to the Kaliningrad issue. (After the Baltic states’ accession to the EU, Kaliningrad would turn into a Russian exclave in the EU.)

In the person of Poul Christoffersen, the Danish Presidency had an extraordinary permanent representative in Brussels. Together with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen, Christoffersen was to play an extraordinary role in the whole process. After serving in the Danish Permanent Representation in the 1970s, Christoffersen had spent 14 years as chief of cabinet of the Secretary General of the Council, attending every European Council from 1981-94. He was then appointed as the Danish Permanent Representative. “With the exception of six months at the end of 1994 when – not unnaturally – the Danish government required him to catch up on contemporary Denmark, Christoffersen had resided in Brussels for a quarter of a century,” writes Ludlow.

Under the Danish Presidency the new rules of procedure for the Council, adopted under the Nice Treaty, were to be applied for the first time. The Danes interpreted the rather unexciting amendments very imaginatively and to maximum effect. This became apparent when they presented the annotated agenda for the Brussels European Council.

“The second version of the annotated agenda … did not simply explain what the heads of state and government would or should talk about, it anticipated what they would decide. Acting entirely on their own initiative, the Danish Presidency decided in other words that the final version of the annotated agenda would be to all intents and purposes the draft conclusions. They also decided, once again unilaterally, to put the annotated agenda on the Presidency website. Preparations for the European Council had hitherto been secretive.”

After the Brussels European Council, hardly two months remained before the Copenhagen summit. Besides discussions with the candidates, the main focus lay on the EU’s own position.

“In normal circumstances, this would have involved extensive negotiations within the EU. Poul Christoffersen, the Danish permanent representative believed, however, that an intra-EU negotiation would endanger the Presidency’s timetable. He therefore decided, with his prime minister’s agreement, to dispense with it. This was in itself noteworthy. What made the situation still more remarkable, however, was that the Presidency and the Commission proceeded to prepare a ‘final offer’ [to the candidate countries] that went well beyond the ‘absolute limits’ laid down [by the member states] at the Brussels Council.”

Ludlow maintains that Christoffersen would have lost the battle straight away had he decided to negotiate with Coreper, the committee of permanent representatives, a key body in the EU decision-making process. Instead of doing so, Christoffersen made a bold, but simple argument:

“As he observed in his closing remarks at the evening session [of a Coreper meeting], he was aware that his proposals were not to everybody’s liking. There would, however, be ample opportunity for governments that continued to harbour reservations to make their views known to the Danish prime minister, who was about to set off on his pre-Copenhagen tour des capitals. In the meantime, he assumed that nobody in the room wanted to take responsibility for sabotaging the fifth enlargement. He therefore proposed to use the package that he had presented as the basis for further rounds of negotiations with the candidates. Coreper did not say yes. Neither, however, did it say no.”

There were many disagreements to come, as well as numerous side issues that poisoned the debate. The going got particularly tough during the last two weeks before the Copenhagen summit in December 2002. Yet it was in Copenhagen that the EU heads of state announced the accession of ten new members on 1 May 2004 – a date set to become one of the milestones in the history of European integration.

“However easy it is to find faults, the process that came to a climax in the second half of 2002 remains one of the most impressive episodes in recent European history.”

  • Peter Ludlow, The Making of the New Europe. The European Councils in Brussels and Copenhagen 2002, EuroComment, 2004.
  • Eurocomment website, with more information about Peter Ludlow’s briefing notes on European Council meetings and other publications on European policy making.
26 April 2010