Fri, May 19, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Brussels: A one-company town whose gossip could shape Brexit

Anyone wanting to negotiate successfully in the EU’s ‘de facto’ capital needs to understand the unspoken rules of informal politics and cocktail diplomacy

By Ian Wishart and Viktoria Dendrinou  /  Bloomberg

However, behind the bland facades of the EU institutions is a town full of chatter, where people firm up work connections after running into each other on sidewalks or at the gym.

It is a city where professional relationships and policy get forged over long lunches, evening cocktails or dinner in one of the city’s many Michelin-starred restaurants.

“The game in Brussels is played on so many levels it is hard to contain,” former Cypriot ambassador to the EU Kornelios Korneliou said.

He cited as an example talks between EU diplomats over sanctions on Russia that took place “in a secure room on the seventh floor” of the European Council’s headquarters.

“As soon as we left the room, we saw tweets from journalists naming the countries that raised objections,” he said.

The Brexit talks are to start in earnest after the British elections on June 8. While EU officials have pushed for the negotiations to be “transparent” at every turn, the UK wants a more confidential approach.

Bickering between the UK and Brussels underscores the gulf that separates the two political cultures and the hurdles that need to be overcome as the discussions begin.

The British media have speculated on EU officials’ social lives, with a particular focus on their drinking habits, even as cocktail diplomacy has become an accepted feature of the Brussels political climate.

In September 2011, when the bloc’s leaders descended on the Belgian capital to try to avert a Greek debt crisis from dragging down the euro, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seen sipping wine with her aides after 1am in the bar of the Hotel Amigo, just off the Grand Place.

At a similar meeting last year on the same topic, Merkel opted for a late-night stroll to the city’s famous Maison Antoine kiosk for some fries rather than a drinking session.

Some British diplomats lamented the departure of Ivan Rogers, the UK’s French-speaking former ambassador to the EU who stepped down in January after being criticized by members of May’s government. With Rogers having previously held a senior post in the European Commission, his resignation deprived the UK of a civil servant with a thorough understanding of the backroom horsetrading that oils Brussels’ diplomatic machinery.

In line with Brussels’ diversity, there is more than one way of building relationships, exchanging information and blurring the lines between work and pleasure in the EU’s de facto capital — and different nationalities bring their own styles.

For the British, there is the press revue — an annual extravaganza of comedy and music where politicians, spokesmen and journalists gather to make fun of Europe and of each other. For those originating from northern Europe, deal-making is sometimes even done naked.

“We did do some sauna diplomacy,” Stubb said. “We used to joke that we didn’t let people out until we got the result we wanted.”

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