Inside the EU summit: what can we expect?

All eyes are on this evening’s crunch “summit” (European Council) meeting in Brussels, where David Cameron hopes to clinch a deal for his EU reform agenda. But how do these meetings really work? What happens if there is disagreement? Who will help broker the deal?

I thought I’d give my behind-the-scenes insight (I used to be a political advisor to the European Council President) into what’s likely to be happening over the next few hours.

First off, it’s important to understand that this is a meeting with 28 “prima donnas” — prime ministers and presidents, most of whom are used to getting their own way at home, but who are now locked away in a meeting where none of them can get their way on any subject without the agreement of 27 others.

Of course, they’re all acutely aware of political realities and the constraints each of their colleagues operate under. Nonetheless, chairing such a meeting of big egos, and getting consensus out of them, is no easy task for its chair, the former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. His predecessor, Herman Van Rompuy, was a master at building consensus, either by skilfully tabling just the right compromise at just the right time, or by building enough political pressure on a recalcitrant member to force a retreat (albeit usually with ample helpings of face-saving).

Much preparatory work is done before the meeting starts at 5pm, but the full summit itself must sign off on any agreement, and there are invariably issues that are only settled at that point. This is done without the benefit of advisors: only members of the Council have seats in the room, apart from two Council officials and the President’s own advisor.

The meeting always starts with a speech from the President of the European Parliament outlining Parliament’s views. After a discussion on this, it is time for the “family photo” which countless newspapers across Europe will use. But the photo is also a break, with participants leaving the meeting room on the 5th floor and walking down a wide hallway chatting, gossiping or seeking support from colleagues on upcoming agenda points.

They then resume, without the Parliament’s President, with the first agenda item(s) of the day, adjourning to move two floors up for dinner at around 8pm. The dinner, which takes place around a single oval table, is often used for the most difficult subjects – with discussions continuing, if necessary, well into the night. Whether any after-coffee liqueurs have ever helped to facilitate agreement is, of course, purely speculative…

At any point, the meeting can be adjourned by the President to allow for bilateral meetings between two or more leaders, or “confessionals” with the President, where he privately hears everyone’s bottom line, one by one, as he tests reactions to a possible compromise – acting as ‘honest broker’ (for which role trust is essential). He can also call two or more leaders to his office to bang heads together, or to find a settlement on a point of particular interest to just a couple of countries.

The other participants do not mind this – a break gives them the opportunity to huddle with advisors or get on the phone to ministers back home. Or just have a rest.

Even after late nights, the meeting resumes the next morning with the intention of ending by lunchtime, turning to new (hopefully less difficult) subjects or returning to any unresolved ones. Approval is given to the formal conclusions – a process that can sometimes involve line by line haggling.

And then the results are revealed to the public – but through press conferences given by each leader simultaneously and largely to their “own” national media. They all put their own gloss on events. Indeed, anyone able to tour a few of them would wonder whether they are talking about the same meeting! And that’s before journalists add their own spin, often unrelated to what actually went on.

In the days that follow, some of the more sophisticated journalists and academics piece all this together like a jigsaw puzzle. Ultimately, very little that happened goes unrevealed — but this is usually a few days after the screaming headlines!

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