How ambassadors took over the EU

Inside the ‘engine room’ that kept the European Union running through the pandemic — and gained power as a result.

How ambassadors took over the EU

As the coronavirus paralyzed politics across Europe, one group gained more power: EU ambassadors.

The envoys who represent the EU’s 27 member countries in Brussels kept meeting in person throughout the pandemic even as leaders, ministers and lawmakers were forced online.

Even more than usual, it fell to their committee, Coreper — an acronym of its French name, Comité des représentants permanents — to thrash out the differences between national governments on issues ranging from vaccine distribution to travel restrictions.

Now as Europe edges back toward normality, officials and diplomats are wondering how much of their increased power the ambassadors will keep. At least some of it seems likely to stay in their hands, as they have boosted a key asset — their direct connection presidents and prime ministers back home.

The ambassadors’ rise also represents a broader power shift in the EU in recent years, away from the European Commission and toward the bloc’s member governments. To be sure, the Commission wields considerable power in some areas. But in the major EU crises of the past decade or so, over sovereign debt and migration, it was the governments that ultimately called the shots.

The envoys’ increased clout during the pandemic also represents a challenge to at least some national government ministers, who officially outrank them. Two diplomats said they’d seen their ambassadors giving orders to ministers, who were clearly not pleased by the role reversal. Another diplomat said they expected power to flow back “only partially” from ambassadors to ministers.

The central role of Coreper also raises concerns for transparency campaigners, as the committee meets behind closed doors and publishes only sparse summaries of its deliberations.

Nonetheless, national leaders have made clear just how vital Coreper has been to keeping the EU running during the coronavirus crisis. With the EU quarter deserted and the Continent enduring repeated lockdowns, the ambassadors continued to meet on the fifth floor of the Council of the EU’s Europa building, albeit under special conditions — socially distanced and with fewer aides.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa took the unusual step for a government leader of joining a Coreper meeting in January, at the start of his country’s six-month stint as Council president. Costa declared the committee to be the “engine room” and “real power center” of the EU, diplomats said.

A clear sign that Costa’s words were not mere flattery came in March. After hours of argument in a video summit, EU leaders took the extraordinary decision to publicly ask Coreper — not health ministers or the European Commission — to figure out how to divvy up an extra load of 10 million coronavirus vaccines.

In interviews for this story, 11 current EU ambassadors, and one former member of the club, described how Coreper operates — and how it changed during the pandemic.

Maurizio Massari, until recently Italy’s ambassador to the EU, said the role of Coreper, which traditionally grapples with policy details to prepare final decisions for ministers, had been “strengthened and broadened” in the coronavirus crisis. Topics long seen as more “technical” such as health policy suddenly became highly political, he noted.

Michael Clauss, Germany’s EU ambassador, said Coreper “has become more political because we didn’t have a lot of physical meetings” of ministers.

Clauss said Coreper was the “missing link” between working groups in the Council of the EU, where officials from member governments hammer out technical details, and meetings of ministers.

“We’re civil servants but we also need to see the political dynamics involved in our work,” he said.

Pivotal players

Coreper is little known to the public, but it has wielded a lot of influence for decades. It was established in 1958 in the early days of European integration. Four years later, it was already dealing with so many issues that it was split into two branches — Coreper I and Coreper II.

Confusingly, Coreper II — sometimes just Coreper, for short — is the more senior body. Its members are the top EU diplomats of each country: the permanent representatives, as they are formally known. They deal with issues — and prepare ministerial meetings — considered the most politically sensitive.

Their deputies sit in Coreper I, which handles topics considered more technical, the nitty-gritty of policy rather than high politics.

But as the pandemic spread, Massari noted, the line between politics and policy “has become more blurred.” The top ambassadors found themselves dealing with issues such as health, travel and digital COVID certificates that might previously have been the domain of their deputies.

Among the most pivotal members of Coreper are Clauss, the German ambassador, and his French counterpart, Philippe Léglise-Costa. Both have the advantage of representing the EU’s political heavyweights but they are also seen as skilled operators in their own right.

Clauss, a former ambassador to China and keen long-distance runner in his spare time, is seen as a pragmatic dealmaker. He chaired Coreper during the tumultuous second half of last year when Germany held the Council presidency and Europe was hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Diplomats describe Léglise-Costa as an expert in policy details that some ambassadors would prefer to leave to specialist officials. “He forces us to deal with aspects that are not for us,” complained one diplomat. But another joked that his deep technical knowledge “can help the French to avoid getting lost in their great plans.”

Léglise-Costa is also seen as a champion of Coreper itself. He made a forceful speech in favor of keeping in-person meetings going during the pandemic. His attachment to the body is one reason Coreper is expected to retain its central role when France takes over the Council presidency in January.

Some other Coreper members are regarded as particularly influential. The Dutch ambassador, Robert de Groot, his country punch above its weight, diplomats say. Nuno Brito, the Portuguese envoy currently chairing Coreper, has won high marks from colleagues for his negotiating skills. The key thing in his job, Brito said, “is the capacity to listen to member states … to listen and understand why an issue is important for them and seek solutions to have them on board or help them with the issues.”

Romanian ambassador Luminiţa Odobescu has a key role, in part because she chairs a group of francophone ambassadors.

Although Hungary’s government clashes with EU institutions and blocks EU decisions, for example when other members wanted to condemn a Chinese government crackdown in Hong Kong, Budapest’s man in Brussels, Tibor Stelbaczky, wins praise from colleagues as a well-prepared professional.

Views are more mixed on Andrzej Sadoś of Poland, the other country often at loggerheads with other EU members, who is regarded as less skilled at handling clashes over issues such as climate change and the rule of law.

Diplomatic deals

While other political power players were reduced to video calls during the pandemic, the ambassadors were able to do what they always do, and what’s much easier to do in person — cut deals by flattering, trading, cajoling, threatening and — even perhaps occasionally — lying.

As the old joke goes, “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

“Lying can be part of the equation, no doubt,” one EU ambassador said a few years ago over lunch, shortly before ending his posting in Brussels. He joked that telling the truth could be dangerous for politicians, seen as a gaffe that could end in a resignation.

Although being a permanent representative to the EU is a plum foreign service posting, it is quite different from most diplomatic jobs.

Permanent representatives generally have a direct link to their prime minister or president, unlike other ambassadors who report to their foreign ministries.

They also preside over large diplomatic missions that are almost like mini-governments, filled with experts in a wide range of policies covered by the EU, and they are in constant negotiation with their counterparts from 26 other member countries.

During the EU’s many crises, “we see each other probably more than our spouses,” complained one ambassador.  

From health to the environment, from trade to digital, Coreper’s official role is to prepare all the meetings of the Council, determining which items reach ministers for decisions. But ministers were confined to their capitals for much of the pandemic, making debates and decisions far more difficult.

That meant the envoys themselves — even more than normal — were the ones really taking these decisions.

It wasn’t quite business as usual. For each country, only the ambassador and one official, known as the “antici” (who substitutes for the permanent representative when they can’t attend) was allowed into the Coreper meeting room. Another official from each country was allowed to monitor the meetings in a listening room two floors below.

Before COVID-19 struck, each country could bring an ambassador plus four aides. With Council and Commission officials also attending, some pre-coronavirus meetings could run to almost 150 people.

But in their slimmed-down format, not just in meetings but in smaller groups and in the corridors, the ambassadors continued to horse trade — although some like to portray it as more sophisticated than crude dealmaking.

“It’s subtle. Everyone knows they have to give and take … It’s an elite horse trading where we only trade horses that can win a derby,” said a senior diplomat.

Key ingredients

The ambassadors’ dealmaking skills were put to the test in March, when EU leaders asked them to work out how to dole out those extra 10 million vaccine doses. It is believed to be the first time Coreper had been entrusted with such a decision.

The move to seek arbitration in Coreper came after Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz stymied a leaders’ videoconference by insisting that his country receive additional doses. 

A compromise was finally found but not before some heavy pressure was applied to Austrian ambassador Nikolaus Marschik and other holdouts. “Some of us went to Nikki and asked him whether he was fully aware of the consequences,” a second senior diplomat recalled.

“Consequences,” in Coreper-speak, can imply that a country may find itself isolated on other important issues or at least struggle to find allies.

“There were some moments that had been pretty hard, in the corridors there were threats,” said a third senior diplomat.

In the end, Kurz had to settle for a deal that effectively reaffirmed the EU’s existing population-based vaccine allocation formula. He claimed victory but almost no one in Brussels saw it that way.

By no means has Coreper been able to fix everything. The EU’s landmark debt-financed coronavirus recovery fund grew out of a proposal from the European Commission and a plan drawn up by Germany and France. EU leaders themselves did the final deal on the fund and the bloc’s long-term budget.

In December last year, leaders had to step in again to agree a compromise over linking payouts of EU funds to respect for the rule of law after a budget blockade by Hungary and Poland.

But among the key ingredients for dealmaking in Coreper, diplomats say, are personal relationships between the ambassadors. Some have known each other for almost 20 years. Clauss and Léglise-Costa, for example, both worked in Brussels at the end of the 1990s.

Having latitude from a government back home to get deals done without having to constantly consult with your capital is also regarded as vital.

Another valuable skill: An ability to signal to your counterparts that you’re not happy with a “red line” that your government has ordered you to draw.

“Often it’s enough — a small sign, an eyebrow, to show that discomfort,” said the third senior diplomat.

Panned as ‘politburo’

Some ambassadors say the increased role of Coreper simply reflects the rise in importance of the European Council, composed of heads of state and government, in handling recent crises. They argue this has taken away some power from the Commission.

In contrast to the high esteem in which it is held by EU leaders, Coreper does not impress everyone. Transparency advocates have long criticized the Council as a “black box” — an opaque body where decisions affecting hundreds of people are made behind closed doors, with little to no public scrutiny.

Coreper can be seen as a black box within the black box. While ministerial meetings are sometimes public and composed generally of elected politicians, Coreper is made up of unelected diplomats or civil servants who meet in private.

Emilio De Capitani, a former EU official who fights through the courts for greater transparency in EU decision-making, argued that “Coreper is like the Politburo … all the negotiations take place here.” In many cases, he noted, decisions formally taken by ministers have already been pre-cooked by Coreper. They then appear on the agenda of ministers’ meetings as so-called “A points” and are approved without discussion.

He described Coreper minutes of its meetings as “extremely succinct” and said they didn’t reflect the true debate, just statements from different delegations who wanted them to be published.

A Council official said that “the Council is fully committed to transparency in the decision making process in accordance with the Treaties and applicable EU legislation.”

Jim Cloos, a recently retired former senior official at the Council, argued it was wrong to see Coreper as evidence that the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats. He noted the ambassadors have “a strong link with the political leadership … It’s not the bureaucracy that decides, it’s always a political decision.”