Sunday

23rd Apr 2017

Focus

The no-tie meetings where EU ministers think ahead

  • Slovakia's Miroslav Lajcak (l), Romania's Lazar Comanescu and Latvia's Edgars Rinkevics arriving in Bratislava for the foreign affairs informal meeting. (Photo: eu2016sk/Flickr)

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Less relaxed

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."

Turkey sends EU mixed message on migration

Turkey's EU minister said in Bratislava his country will continue to respect the migration deal, but would not do more until it gets visa-free EU travel.

EU trying to relaunch Ukraine peace process

Foreign ministers said the EU is ready to help with elections in Eastern Ukraine, while France and Germany are trying to bring back Russia to the negotiating table.

The heated life of Malta's politics

While the smallest EU state has been commended in Brussels for its smooth presidency of the Council, domestic politics are characterised by heated polarisation with accusations and insults often being traded.

No opt-outs on migration, says Malta

For the Mediterranean country that just took the EU presidency, the migration crisis is still there and must be addressed internally and externally.

EU presidency strengthened Slovakia's government

Prime minister Robert Fico gained EU and domestic praise for his six month at EU helm, but the far right is still on the rise in a country where Europe is still not a top issue.

EU backs setting up prosecutor's office

Heads of state and government have agreed to allow a core group of EU states to set up a European Public Prosecutor Office to probe VAT fraud and crimes against the EU budget.

In cooperation with

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  2. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  5. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  6. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  7. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  9. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  10. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  11. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society

Latest News

  1. France holds nail-biting 'anti-system' vote
  2. Le Pen-Putin friendship goes back a long way
  3. Mogherini should tell Russians their rights matter
  4. Le Pens Freunde aus dem Trump Tower
  5. Sexe et mensonges: l'information russe sur l'UE
  6. Report: Post-Brexit payments, ECJ jurisdiction could last years
  7. Oxford study raises alarm on 'junk' news in France
  8. Thousands to march in defence of science

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AllianceAutonomia to Normalnosc - Poland Urged to Re-Grant Autonomy to Silesia
  2. UNICEFHitting Rock Bottom - How 2016 Became the Worst Year for #ChildrenofSyria
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  5. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  6. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  7. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  8. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  10. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  11. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy