A Form of Words
BBC Radio Producer Mark Savage spent six months following Britain 's presidency of the European Union through the prism of the Foreign Office.
I'm sitting or, to put it more accurately, crouching on the floor at the Foreign Office in London on the eve of one of the most crucial meetings during Britain 's Presidency of the European Union. Member states have already agreed to start talks with Turkey in a few days' time over its application to join the EU. Now - very late in the day - some countries are hesitating and openly questioning the whole idea of Turkish membership. There are clearly going to be long hours of negotiation ahead with precious time for any sleep. For me, it is going to be an object lesson in the art of diplomacy.
The reason I am crouching on the floor is so that I can record a conference call between the civil servants at the Foreign Office and their colleagues in Brussels and Ankara . They are keen to read the runes and discover the position every country is likely to take when they meet. It boils down to a stand-off between Austria and the Turks themselves, manifested in the wording of the document Turkey is due to sign to mark the start of membership negotiations.
The news doesn't look good. The Austrians want changes, says Britain's man in Brussels: "The Austrians described these changes as essential and said that, if they couldn't be taken on board, they could not agree and there would be a crisis - and they used that word." But, according to Britain 's man in Ankara , the Turks will have none of it: "The key sentence which others seem to want to change is something to which they are very attached indeed and if we start messing about with that I think we are in some danger of losing them". It is only talk about talks, but there are dangerous undercurrents here: dark mutterings about 'a clash of civilisations' and the need to embrace the Muslim world, on the one hand, and the danger of Europe being overwhelmed by immigration on the other.
Foreign ministers from all over Europe descend on Luxembourg for the meeting two day's later and I find myself occupying the couch outside the room where Jack Straw, Britain 's Foreign Secretary, will conduct most of the negotiations. The EU has now become so large - with 25 member states and two more set to join - that much of the important business is done in bilateral meetings between individual member states. I have a unique vantage point in the British Presidency suite as the key players are summoned one by one: first the foreign minister from the Greek part of Cyprus, which has its own arguments with Turkey, and then Ursula Plassnik, the tall and striking foreign minister from Austria.
I'm tempted to hold a glass up to the wall to see if I can hear what is going on inside but Foreign Office officials keep me briefed and the Foreign Secretary himself stops to talk on his way back from the rest room. Two o'clock in the morning arrives - thank God for the couch - and there is still no sign of an agreement. The talks are adjourned so that everyone can snatch a few hours sleep and start again the following day. That morning, Britain 's EU ambassador Sir John Grant emerges from the room declaiming, "There is still a hope. There is always a hope until there is no hope". It sounds like the cry of a man who has lost all hope.
These negotiations stretch far beyond the room behind me: ministers are on the phone to their respective heads of state and Jack Straw maintains contact with Prime Minister Tony Blair. I learn that Straw has also put in a call to the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to see if she can help resolve the crisis by talking to the Cypriots and reassuring the Turks. A further complication is added by the presence of the media, eager for the slightest snippet of information. John Williams, the Foreign Secretary's press advisor, becomes exasperated: "You get to points at events like this where there are hundreds and hundreds of journalists out there from all over Europe - actually from all over the world - and the rumour mill starts to turn by its own momentum and it can actually have an effect on what's happening inside. So you have got journalists convincing themselves or being convinced by others there is a deal done, you've got the foreign ministers in session wondering if a deal's done, hearing there may have been. Everybody's feeding everyone else.'
Later that day a deal is finally done, after more than 30 hours of gruelling talks, when a solution is found in 'a form of words'. Turkey gets what it wants with the first paragraph of the all important document stating that the prime objective is Turkey 's accession to the European Union. The Austrians are consoled by a reference further down the page to 'the need to take account of the European Union's ability to 'absorb' such a new member (the decision to allow Croatia , with whom Austria has close ties, to begin talks on EU membership helps to sweeten the pill). A form of words is even found to excuse the fact that the talks with Turkey began after the designated midnight deadline: "We were able to meet the deadline of the 3 rd October because I began speaking before midnight in the United Kingdom and this is presidency time," Jack Straw explains to groans from assembled journalists (Brussels is one hour ahead). Everyone goes home - if not happy - with at least something in their party bag.
A friendly foreign office official summed it all up a couple of weeks later, after another round of negotiations in Brussels - this time over the new budget for the European Union. He and his colleagues had been enjoying a light-hearted moment drawing up lists of top groups from the 60s, 70s and 90s (there are none in the 80s). He is cited a line from 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', one of the Stones' earlier hits: "You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need - it's the ultimate negotiating song," he said.
The budget negotiations themselves - the focus of the final part of Britain 's presidency in December - were to prove just as arduous and even more difficult. The problem for the British was that every member state wanted something and each claimed their need was the greatest. Britain 's not only had to argue its own case - isolated from the rest like Austria during the Turkey negotiations - but was also charged with bringing about a solution. Nicola Brewer, head of the European section at the Foreign Office, toured the EU frantically attempting to find a solution in the lead up to the final European Summit in December, "Every single other member state has a powerful national interest so they all have something to fight for."
Britain 's Foreign Secretary recognised, as he struggled with a bout of flu during one particularly difficult negotiating session, that the usual diplomatic solutions weren't necessarily going to work: "People round the table are very skilful at finding words which can accommodate different positions," he said. "The problem with a budget is that the laws of arithmetic set in."
The laws of arithmetic did, undoubtedly, play a big part in the eventual deal which member states reached over the budget in December, but words proved useful too. As Tony Blair thrashed it out with Jacques Chirac in a room upstairs, we talked to the Foreign Secretary's press advisor, John Williams: "My feeling is that the words are the key to unlocking it," he said. "That if it became clear to the Council that actually Britain and France had pretty well agreed a form of words which allowed us both to say 'we've got what we want' then I think you'd find - maybe not a stampede - but suddenly people around the table saying 'well we better lock up the deal before we lose what we've got'".
Britain , of course, was accused of blatant surrender by the euro-sceptics but a form of words was found in answer to that charge. And it wasn't only in Britain . All over Europe , a form of words was used to explain why each country had got the best deal open to it. "Was it a triumph, a disaster or a muddy compromise," I asked an official, in an attempt to get at the truth. "A muddy compromise," was the form of words we agreed on.