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Booze-free Brussels and the art of diplomatic drinking

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAMUEL STOLTON

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Booze-free Brussels and the art of diplomatic drinking

Willy Brandt is sitting in the back of a Mercedes alongside his wife, Rut, as the car approaches West Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. It is October 1965 and they are on their way to meet the Russians in the East of the city. It will be the first time in several years the pair have ventured across the border.

Brandt, in his capacity at the time as Mayor of West Berlin, has been invited for talks at the Russian embassy with Ambassador Peter Abrassimov, amid a climate of diplomatic estrangement between East and West Berlin.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


The city still bears the scars of the fall of Berlin twenty years prior: Bullet holes can be seen in the soot-blackened buildings approaching the Unter den Linden, where the Russian embassy intimidates its dilapidated surroundings – a bastion of Soviet authority.

Needless to say, Brandt is deeply concerned about the nature of his engagement this evening. It has been four years since the East German government began building the Berlin Wall, ringfencing in Eastern Berliners and restricting Western travel to Soviet-controlled territories.

The night the construction had begun on August 13th, 1961, Brandt was on the campaign trail in Hanover for the West German federal elections. Being informed about the Soviet’s plans, in the dead of night, he raced back to Berlin and spent the following day in unison with other West Berliners protesting the fortification.

Brandt detests the wall and everything that it symbolizes. He has spent the period between its construction and the Abrassimov visit openly advocating against its existence.

However, the barricade does afford Brandt’s Social Democrats a practical political apparatus: They are able to contrive the beginnings of a renewed Ostpolitik – an easing of political relations with the East. This marks a distinct departure from the Christian Democratic Union approach, which, spearheaded by leader Konrad Adenauer, had taken a much tougher stance with the Soviets.

Despite Brandt’s “policy of peaceful co-existence” between East and West, he knows the talks with Abrassimov and his associates won’t be easy. Unlike the wider geopolitical and ideological spectrum by which the Soviets view their occupation of Eastern Germany – Brandt is concerned about families being separated from one another and the microeconomics of everyday life for local citizens – on both sides of the wall.

Brandt is well aware that talking to the Russians through the prism of a localized politics is something that their grand-ideological project may not make concessions for.

The Mayor, however, enters the Russian embassy in October 1965 equipped with his own Trojan horse: A magnificent capacity for consuming copious quantities of strong liquor. And indeed, this is a currency in which the Soviets were more than happy to trade. The meeting between Brandt and Abrassimov effectively marked the beginning in a series of engagements that would eventually, indirectly, lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As historians Kerstin Ehmer and Beate Hindermann recall of the talks: “By the time Brandt requested switching from vodka to cognac, the mayor and ambassador were on first-name terms. The ladies withdrew to be entertained by a film about Russian traditions and landscapes, and the gentlemen began to find a way to talk over glasses of cognac.”

“The politics of cautiously getting to know each other had begun. Twenty-four years and many empty bottles later, the wall was gone.”

In Brussels this week, new restrictions have come into force that could significantly reduce the consumption of alcohol for many working in the EU bubble. Minister-President for the Brussels-Capital Region Rudi Vervoort announced closures on all bars and cafes in the area for a one-month period, along with a ban on the consumption of alcohol in public places. Restaurants, thank heavens, are exempt.

And while EU diplomats, policymakers, and lawmakers alike will still be free to consume spirituous beverages in the luxury of their own private quarters, the ‘art of the diplomatic drink’ and that which it often accompanies – shrewd negotiations on delicate and multidimensional political and policy issues, will be curtailed across the city’s many drinking holes.

We’re in the midst of seismic EU negotiations. Alongside the bloc’s future relationship with the UK, talks between the European Council and the Parliament on the next long-term budget have also reached somewhat of an impasse. In terms of the latter, in the latest meeting on Thursday evening, Parliament’s delegation walked out of the discussions, saying that they’ll return to the negotiating table “once there is a real will from the Council’s side to find an agreement.”

But the most testing of accords aren’t forged in grimy Council backrooms or dingy Parliament quarters – and certainly not on video-conferencing platforms. With the bars and cafes of Brussels on lockdown and alcoholic spirits seized from the hands of those in public spaces, the theatres of mutual trust and confidence patterned across the Brussels polis have evaporated from the urban landscape. Without such instruments at hand, negotiations will most probably not progress much further any time soon.

For his part, ‘Brandy Willy,’ as he was affectionally known by those in his inner circle, found a way of building up a relationship of trust with the Soviets, managing, over a series of subsequent meetings with the Russians, to drink the ‘bad memories’ under the table. Brandt had perfected the art of diplomatic drinking, some of the fundamental lessons of which wouldn’t go amiss in Brussels today – that is, when our pubs are open again.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.