Insight: The day Europe lost patience with Britain

Sun Dec 11, 2011 10:43pm EST
 
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By Luke Baker and Julien Toyer

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - It was billed as a summit to save the euro. It may be remembered as the day Europe lost patience with Britain, as most of the continent threw its lot in with EU founding members France and Germany and committed to binding their economies ever more tightly.

There was plenty of talk of history in the making in the week before the Dec 8/9 gathering of European Union leaders - the eighth this year. But it was all about the currency and whether it would survive the strains of a debt crisis that over the past two years has engulfed Greece, spread to Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy and now threatens France and even mighty Germany.

As the summit began, there was no hint of the drama that was to come in the early hours of Friday, the moment when Europe split, 26 against one, after about 10 hours of talks. Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with its EU partners, choosing not to join the single currency or sign the open borders Schengen treaty and often kicking against what it sees as Brussels "interference."

But this was a low point. The first time in 39 years that a British prime minister had used a veto to block an EU agreement. David Cameron cast it is a bold and necessary decision to protect British interests. Most of the rest of Europe appeared to regard it as reckless and went a different way. Hours later, when the leaders briefly reconvened to finish their discussions, Cameron cut a lonely figure. French President Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to avoid an extended hand as Cameron walked to his seat.

The build up to this last summit of the year had been much like the previous seven. The language had been recognisable too, even if market pressures had added an unprecedented degree of urgency to glacial EU decision making. Overnight borrowing from the European Central Bank hit its highest level since March at the start of December, showing the degree of tension amongst banks.

PROFOUND CONCERN

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had spent several days in Europe before the summit. The United States, like all of Europe's trade partners, had been watching the accelerating debt crisis with profound concern, worried for their own economies and banks.

In meetings with the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, and euro zone finance ministers the conversation was all about the two-year-old debt crisis and how to resolve it. The issues: the role of the ECB, how far should or would it stand behind countries to buy them breathing space, the scale of the euro zone's rescue fund, the part to be played by the IMF, and should the EU let private bondholders off the hook.   Continued...