The no-tie meetings where EU ministers think ahead
By Eric Maurice
In the complex galaxy of EU gatherings, informal ministers' meetings are an unusual sight.
They only happen twice a year, normally far from Brussels, and they are far less scripted than typical EU talks.
It's a time for male ministers to leave their ties at home, and for participants, including ministers' partners, to be treated to gala dinners and, sometimes, tourist trips.
The format was introduced in 1974 as a sort of seminar to think ahead out of the constraints of the official agenda.
The first one took place at the Gymnich castle, in the small town of Erftstadt in Germany’s Rhine valley.
In EU-speak, Gymnich has remained as the name of the foreign affairs informal meeting.
All the other nine configurations of the Council of the EU also have their informal events, but with no specific moniker.
Like a private discussion
A more relaxed atmosphere and working sessions spanned over two days are the main advantage of the "informals" compared to the regular monthly council meetings.
"In the foreign affairs council we have a big agenda and a relatively limited amount of time. Here we have enough time and not that many issues," said Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak at last week's Gymnich in Bratislava.
"That gives us enough space to discuss things," he said.
Bratislava's Gymnich was the first informal after summer, with nine to follow in the Slovak capital this month and next. Justice and interior ministers were there in July. Only development ministers will hold their informal meeting in Brussels.
For the council presidency, "it is important to create the environment for a good informal discussion," Peter Stano, Lajcak's spokesman, told EUobserver at the Gymnich.
"Ministers come alone, without delegation, it's almost like a private discussion," he said.
Aides and EU officials "all try to know what was said behind the closed doors," one of them said.
Contrary to council meetings, they take no formal decisions and can speak outside of the normal constraints of their governments’ instructions.
More iPad than thick files
"You set the agenda and people just come," Stano said. "There is no drafting, no technical and diplomatic work" by the different layers of working groups that "pre-cook" the decisions ahead of Brussels' regular meetings.
That's why ministers come without the usual thick file under their arm. "It's more iPad," Stano said.
Discussions remain serious, however. Last week's Gymnich, for instance, was the first opportunity for ministers to discuss Turkey after the coup and how the EU should deal with it. They also met with the Turkish Europe minister Omer Celik in talks aimed at restoring dialogue with Ankara.
Informal meetings can also be tough.
One infamous example is last year's informal meeting of finance ministers in Riga, when Latvia held the EU presidency.
During the Eurogroup session, held on the first day, Greek minister Yanis Varoufakis came under fire from his colleagues, with some of them reportedly calling him a "time-waster, a gambler and an amateur”, with an "irresponsible" way of managing his country's financial crisis.
The Riga meeting was a turning point in the Greek crisis - the moment when all bridges were burnt between the flamboyant maverick-academic-turned-politician and his more traditional colleagues.
After the meeting, Varoufakis posted on his Twitter account a quote from former US president Franklin Roosevelt that said: “They are unanimous in their hate for me; and I welcome their hatred."
The Eurogroup, which is itself an informal configuration of the finance ministers’ council, but with decision-making powers, is a special case. But regular observers of the EU machine have noticed a change in other informal meetings in recent years.
Ministers may still come without a tie, but in the past, some even used to come in T-shirts, Stano noted.
For the media, informals tend to look more and more like regular meetings, with the same "doorsteps" - the short declaration to the press by ministers when they arrive - the same attempts to talk to “sources,” and an increasingly tight security.
Journalists remembers when ministers and journalists would mix in the same hall to relax or when ministers, like Sweden's Carl Bildt, would come to the press room.
"Now there is a systematic separation" between the media crowd and official delegations, noted Jean-Jacques Mevel, a correspondent for French daily Le Figaro.
As with the Greek crisis in Riga, or the consequences of Turkey’s failed coup and the situation in Ukraine in Bratislava, long-term brainstorming is also often overshadowed by pressing issues.
"It's the EU dynamic, how times are going," Stano said. Between Brussels and the different settings in member states, all tends to look the same, he noted. "The venues, the format, the feelings."