It was still early evening when German Chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled the traditional, late-night fireside chat with journalists on Thursday night.
It was a wise decision. Merkel, who currently occupies the European Union's rotating presidency, had plenty of other work to do. Like reaching an agreement on the EU's first collective agreement on combating global warming.
Talks went long on Thursday evening and the 27 EU leaders didn't make it to the dinner table until well past their scheduled meal time. Merkel didn't show up to the press conference until 11:20 p.m.
Now, it looks as though the hard work may have paid off. According to EU diplomats on Friday, a compromise deal has been reached underlining the unilateral move by the EU to cut emissions by 20 percent as well as to radically increase the share of renewable energy in the continent's mix.
"I personally am very satisfied and happy that it has been possible to open the door into a whole new dimension of European cooperation in the years to come in the area of energy and combating climate change," Merkel said at a Friday news conference.
Yesterday evening, Friday's success seemed far off. The EU had agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent as compared with 1990. That was the easy part. But when it came to how those reductions were to be made—and how big a role renewable energy sources are to play in Europe's future energy mix—the talks had come to a standstill. Still, Merkel was optimistic.
By Friday morning, Merkel had a draft compromise in circulation which once again called for renewable energy to make up 20 percent of the mix by 2020. But a certain amount of flexibility was introduced as to how individual member-countries would reach that goal. "Differentiated national overall targets" should be set "with due regard to a fair and adequate allocation taking account of different national starting points," the draft says.
By Friday morning, Merkel was speaking of a "breakthrough" in the difficult negotiations.
The reason for the retreat from a more rigid wording of the agreement was clear: France and a number of Eastern European states were insisting that nuclear energy qualify as an "carbon free" energy source. A number of other Eastern European countries were concerned about the expense of other renewables, given that they currently rely on cheap, coal-fired power plants.
At the moment, renewable energies make up only 6.5 percent of Europe's energy mix, and a drastic increase could be expensive for many EU countries. "There is a lot of resistance," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It will be very difficult to reach a compromise agreement."
On Thursday evening, it seemed briefly as though a breakthrough was imminent. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt announced at 10 p.m. that only three countries were standing in the way of a deal and that only details were standing in the way of a successful compromise. His optimism was premature.
As it turned out, the number of skeptics was much higher—perhaps as many as 10. Rasmussen confirmed that it was a "significant number." Merkel though, he said, is doing an "excellent job" and has a firm grasp on the details. Which is important, he said because, "the devil is in the details."
Merkel sees this summit as Europe's chance to take on a pioneering role in the battle against CO2 emissions and global warming. She wants to use an EU agreement to leverage a G8 agreement and put pressure on major CO2 emitters around the globe. And at the press conference on Thursday night, she did her best to exude optimism. She said there was a need for more discussion, but that the number of those standing in the way of a deal had not grown. But it hadn't really shrunk either.
Still, according to diplomats, Merkel had managed to win over French President Jacques Chirac—a major critic of her plan. He seems to have retreated from his original position that "non-carbon" energy sources like nuclear energy should be included in the renewable energy category with wind, hydro and solar power. Some 40 percent of France's energy comes from nuclear plants, but Merkel had categorically refused to consider nuclear as a renewable energy.
But opposition came from the east as well. Many countries in Eastern Europe are currently experiencing economic upswings and are concerned that a major investment in renewable energy—which they fear would make energy more expensive than it is now—could harm their competitiveness. Even Germany itself may have trouble reaching the goal it would like to set for the entire EU. According to the country's Ministry of the Environment, only 16 percent of the country's energy is likely to come from renewables by 2020—meaning other countries would have to make up for the shortfall.
Merkel, though, saw the "credibility" of the EU at stake and appealed to all 27 members to make a sincere effort at finding an agreement. It looks as though they were listening.