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21st May 2022

EU protocol chief sheds light on Brussels' dance of diplomacy

The days when King Henry VIII met King Francis I in a field full of cloth of gold are gone but VIPs still have big egos, with the EU's protocol chief telling EUobserver about the intricate hierarchy of the family photo, the "paranoia" of US delegations and which EU leader has the firmest handshake.

"Protocol is about respecting the dignity of the visitor and making sure everything goes smoothly, that there is no unplanned interference," 64-year old Austrian Hans Brunmayr, who has been welcoming VIPs at the EU's headquarters in Brussels for five years, explained.

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  • The EU photo: like a Hawaiian hula dance, every movement has a meaning (Photo: European Council)

Looking at the picture of the 27 EU leaders taken at the end of the December summit - the "family photo" - it is clear the host, the then Finnish EU presidency is in the middle. But it is less clear why Finland is flanked by France and Poland or why EU top diplomat Javier Solana is hanging around on the front row.

The answer is an occult system of diplomatic values which assumes that: the closer you stand to the current EU presidency the more important you are; the second most important figure is the next incoming EU presidency and a national president is always more important than a prime minister.

In the photo, Germany and Portugal should be standing next to Finland as the two next EU presidencies. But in EU protocol poker a president, such as Jacques Chirac always beats a prime minister, such as Angela Merkel, and a president who will soon hold the EU presidency (France is 2008) beats a president who is to have the EU chair later (Poland is 2011).

The system, which runs all the way to the Austrian PM in the worst place on the second row (EU presidency in 2019) and the foreign ministers stuffed in the back rows, is so complex that Mr Brunmayr has to stick little flags with names on them to the floor so that people know where to stand.

Meanwhile, Mr Solana is the joker in the pack and can appear anywhere in a situation that mirrors his office - formally there is no such thing as an EU foreign minister but he does the job anyway. "Solana is always in the front row either here or there," Mr Brunmayr said. "He is granted a special status."

Chirac and Schuessel's beer

At summits, Mr Brunmayr's job is manifold: he makes sure each leader takes no more than 3 minutes to get out of his car and inside the building; that Mr Chirac and Austria's Mr Schuessel always got a glass of Belgian white beer before dinner and that the host is never confronted with two VIPs' hands to shake at the same time.

But protocol has its limits as well. "We think politicians are adult people and they know better than us how to perform in public. We show them which way to go, but how they behave among each other - that's up to them," Mr Brunmayr said, in reference to a visit by US president George Bush in 2005.

Three weeks before Mr Bush came, 200 US diplomats arrived for daily "walkthroughs" of how the visit would go, flying in lecterns from Washington, flying Bush's EU badge-pin back to Washington for analysis and insisting that only his special guard of US marines could serve him so much as a glass of water.

"Bush himself was very easygoing but his staff were absolutely upset if the tiniest detail was changed. That's not our habit," Mr Brunmayr said. "One guy was in charge of his earphone, another one of measuring the height of the lecterns. In the end it was pure paranoia - they wanted to control everything."

That Blair sparkle

As for Mr Brunmayr's fleeting moments of face-to-face time with Europe's elite, they vary from the clumsy duplicity of Italy's ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi to the slick charisma of the UK's Tony Blair.

"Some people treat you like a piece of furniture," Mr Brunmayr said. "Berlusconi ignored me most of the time, then we met again in the meeting room and he hugged me as if I was his oldest friend - I think he thought I was somebody else. But when Blair says 'it's good to see you' you really have the impression he is fond of you."

Mr Brunmayr also singled out Nordic leaders for being laid-back at their ritual greetings outside the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels. But he said that Denmark's PM has the toughest hand-grip of all the 27 EU leaders, despite Matti Vanhanen's giant stature. "The firmest must be Rasmussen," Mr Brunmayr said. "Also a Viking."

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