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An EU ‘four-shirter,’ for the wrong reasons

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

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An EU ‘four-shirter,’ for the wrong reasons

An ever-jovial Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel turned up to yesterday’s European Council summit saying he had brought two changes of shirt out of fear that he may “spill sauce” during dinner.

That is not how the ideology of the shirt-changing process for European Council summits should be conducted. The wind-beaten phrase ‘four-shirter’ is often employed to describe extraordinary Council gatherings that have the potential to be of a laborious duration. And arduous and painstaking as it was, progress between EU states on finding common ground as part of the bloc’s next long-term budget was short in supply.

As leaders dragged themselves to Belgium’s Capital, they clearly had other things on their mind. Notwithstanding the various domestic struggles being played out across the bloc, Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte, being the musical aficionado that he is, told reporters on arrival that he had brought along a biography of Frederique Chopin to ease himself through the meeting. Bulgaria’s Boyko Borisov reportedly lamented over the fact that he would miss an important Europa league tie between his country’s Ludogorets versus Inter Milan. As if to bitter Borisov’s tears, Ludogorets eventually lost the game.


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES 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 Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.


In a not-so inconspicuous reference to his country’s stance on the EU’s budget, Rutte, in an exhibition of his austere sentimentalities, said that he had brought a “small apple” to, as he said, “get through the night.” The statement itself was superfluous: European leaders are always served up a gourmet menu. This time around, they sunk their teeth into a starter of spring vegetables with a spicy jus, followed by an Iberian pork with lentils main, finishing with tiramisu ‘with a twist.’

The Netherlands is a member of the so-called ‘Frugal Four’ contingency of EU nations, including Denmark, Austria and Sweden, who are calling for a reduction in the EU’s budget in the context of the 12bn EUR shortfall that remains following the UK’s departure from the EU. They would like the EU’s budget to be equivalent to around one percent on the total Gross National Income of all 27 EU nations. One EU insider joked to me yesterday that in this vein, Brexit demonstrates how the UK is able to impose pressure on the EU amid ongoing trade negotiations, without explicitly making a political move.

The Frugals are opposed by 17-member states including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain, dubbed the ‘Friends of Cohesion,’ who want cohesion funds and agricultural support, as part of the MFF maintained.


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For their part, the EU’s duopolistic figureheads, Merkel and Macron, hit the road before dinner was served, with the German Chancellor escaping to the confines of her hotel and Macron heading to Place Jourdan for a bite to eat.

Despite Council President Charles Michel attempting to appease the Friends of Cohesion during a series of bilateral talks last night, the potential deficit in the area of cohesion funds continues to provoke the ire of the 17-strong group.

Michel’s draft ‘negotiating box” has failed to contract the imagination of EU leaders, resulting in a throng of heads of states steadfast in their cause, yet apathetic in the desire to realign their red lines. Perhaps Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was able to surmise last night’s proceedings most succinctly, calling the meeting “highly disappointing.”

Talks are set to continue throughout Friday, and leaders are now likely to be summoned back to Belgium’s capital in two weeks’ time to resume the talks.

The fact that Luxembourg’s Bettel only brought along one extra shirt for this week’s negotiations gives us an insight into how EU leaders approached the budget summit: with a lacklustre air, absent in the pugnacity and rigorousness of the ‘four-shirt’ extraordinary meetings of the past.

In this regard, Charles Michel shoulders the blame for having misread the appetites of leaders. Should there be another gathering in the coming weeks, he will want to make sure that his wardrobe is packed with a much more varied attrire.


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES 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 Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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