Deep tactical and strategic divisions within Europe played a role in undermining chances of a successful outcome at last year’s Copenhagen climate change conference, WikiLeaks cables before and after the conference suggest, but despite it being “an incredible disaster”, both supporters and opponents of climate change action think it was more successful than portrayed.

Media attention has so far focused on US tactics in the lead-up to Copenhagen, but the cables provide a glimpse of other countries’ stances, at least viewed through a State Department prism.

The United States’ Brussels post was reporting in July last year divisions between eastern and western Europe over both the cost of climate financing and a European target, with eastern countries led by Poland saying their economies, especially in the wake of the GFC, were not able to, in their view, subsidise Chinese and Indian growth, and western countries complaining the east was “holding Europe hostage”.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the conference, divisions between the European Union and member states emerged. The American ambassador to the EU met in early January this year with new EU president Herman van Rompuy. Van Rompuy and lamented that Copenhagen was “an incredible disaster” from which “Europe was excluded and mistreated” and where Europe lacked a single voice. He predicted the current Cancun meeting would also be a “disaster”. He proposed abandoning an attempt to reach a multilateral agreement in favour of the US and the EU negotiating directly and then offering a joint agreement to China.

Van Rompuy’s view was complemented by the French government. In February, French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told the US ambassador the whole idea of a legally-binding treaty — which he portrayed as a Eurocentric idea acceptable to Europeans but less so to others — should be abandoned. Instead, Borloo proposed, with a splendid Gallic indifference to the British, that the most influential countries — “Germany and France for Europe, the United States, China, India, Brazil, Algeria and Ethiopia (and possibly South Africa) — negotiate an implementation plan for the Copenhagen accord

The view from the Netherlands, as reported by US diplomats, was different, but touched on divisions as well. After meeting the Dutch environment minister later in January, the US ambassador to the Netherlands declared the Dutch were broadly happy with the outcome from Copenhagen but concerned the lack of developed country commitment on climate financing would be used by developing countries as a pretext for walking away from any international agreement.

Moreover, the Dutch described a strong push-back from Italy and Poland against British and Dutch arguments for a higher 20-30% reduction target for Europe. Dutch climate negotiator Sanne Kaasjager also declared he “was taken aback by the sight of European leaders (e.g., PM Brown and Chancellor Merkel) hovering around the VIP room sofas where the Chinese, Indian, South African, and Brazilian representatives were consulting, trying in vain to get pull asides with the BASIC leaders” and said European countries had lacked discipline and a tactical plan for the conference.

European officials were less enthusiastic than the Dutch. The US Deputy National Security Advisor met with EU officials the same week for “wide-ranging discussions” which included extensive talks on how to handle the outcome from Copenhagen. The Europeans — while appearing to not endorse the US view that Copenhagen was “a good outcome”, thought it contained “a lot of good points” and shouldn’t be wasted — to which end, the EU was holding off on criticism of the US.

A fortnight later, the Saudi Embassy sent a surprising account of the Saudi government’s position. Long deeply sceptical about climate change and convinced it was part of a plot to undermine its oil revenues, the Saudis were now, US diplomats reported, divided over whether to maintain their hostility to international climate change action or participate as part of the Kingdom’s own long-term focus on switching to renewable energy and nuclear power:

“A senior Ministry of Petroleum official explained that, leaving Copenhagen, the Saudi delegation was convinced that the Copenhagen accord would not attract significant support… The Minister’s office was unpleasantly surprised by mid-January, when it was clear that a number of countries had already associated themselves with the accord. Assistant Petroleum Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman … told the Minister that Saudi Arabia had missed a real opportunity to submit ‘something clever,’ like India or China, that was not legally binding but indicated some goodwill towards the process … the challenge for Saudi Arabia was to find a way to ‘climb down’ from its negotiating position.”

The US found opposition to the Copenhagen outcome of a different kind from Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had not merely offended his Danish hosts at Copenhagen but apparently annoyed even the Chinese with his strident opposition to the UN process, considered primarily driven by his own ego and an eagerness to differentiate himself from ally Hugo Chavez of Venezuala. The cable retailed an unsupported anecdote from climate negotiator Gisela Ulloa that “an animated Morales told her he was surrounded by well-wishers in Copenhagen urging him ‘not to abandon them,’ while Chavez was alone in the corner”.