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

Fri, May 19, 2017 - Page 9

In the shadow of the European Commission in Brussels, the Dal Padrino restaurant hums to the lunchtime chatter of politicians and journalists chewing over the latest piece of intrigue.

From Brexit to US President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to the city he once branded a “hellhole,” there is no shortage of fodder.

With tens of thousands of diplomats, officials and journalists from each of the EU’s 28 nations and the rest of the world, secrets in Brussels do not stay that way for long and it is something with which the UK is already coming to terms.

“A lot of negotiations are informal and they take place outside the actual negotiating room,” former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb, who lived in the Belgian capital for nine years as a civil servant and lawmaker, said in a telephone interview.

“One of the key things as a serious player in Brussels is to have a broad contact network,” he said.

With Brexit talks not even underway yet, British Prime Minister Theresa May got an early taste of the city’s tongue-wagging culture, blaming “Brussels gossip” for leaks of her supposedly confidential dinner last month with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier in London.

The fallout served as a wake-up call about how business gets done in a town where nations have varying — and often clashing — interests on policies ranging from trade and transport to fisheries and financial regulation, and where the EU’s three main decision-making bodies vie for attention.

Like in US company towns that sprang up around a single employer, there is only one reason that the bars, stores and restaurants in the EU quarter of Brussels exist: The city boasts 5,400 diplomats, the highest number in the world according to a Brussels government study last year.

Add to that the 20,000 lobbyists with an annual budget of 1.5 billion euros (US$1.67 billion), 40,000 EU employees and nearly 1,000 permanent journalists from more than 30 nations and you have got a fertile environment for gossip to spread.

The scale and variety of nationalities make Brussels comparable to cities like Washington, even though its history dates back to the Middle Ages, with the groundwork for its fabled city center — a Gothic tourist attraction called the Grand Place — being laid more than 600 years before the founding of the US’ capital.

From Czech street markets to Scottish churches, Romanian doctors to German schnitzel restaurants and Portuguese soccer bars to Estonian-language schooling, Brussels is the epitome of European multiculturalism.

Serving up dishes of seafood linguine and Sicilian swordfish, Dal Padrino’s manager Gino Ridolfini frequently finds himself seating European commissioners, top civil servants, ambassadors and national ministers — ensuring their tables are out of earshot from one another.

“Many deals in Brussels are made over a plate,” Ridolfini said, as three sharply dressed diners showed up apologizing that they had not made a reservation. “They want to discuss in peace, so it’s a question of discretion.”

Since the UK joined the EU in 1973, tabloid newspapers have caricatured Brussels as a dull city, full of pen-pushers who like nothing better than to draft reams of technical legislation on the curvature of bananas or the power of toasters. That has helped reinforce the perception of the city as a boring administrative place without much spark.

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.”