Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

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.

Interview

Estonian presidency leaves 'more confident' EU

During its six months as head of the EU Council, Estonia tried to maintain EU unity and push 'digital' - despite Brexit and the lack of a government in Berlin, explained deputy minister for EU affairs Matti Maasikas.

Opinion

What to expect from Bulgaria's EU presidency?

Corruption, organised crime, lack of foreign investment and digital skills make Bulgaria an unlikely standard bearer for the EU during its presidency. But perhaps Sofia can pull it off.

EU states loosen grip on tax havens

Finance ministers removed eight entities from the tax havens blacklist, while ruling out more transparency or sanctions - prompting criticism from tax-campaigning NGOs such as Oxfam.

News in Brief

  1. Belgian PM to host 11 EU leaders ahead of summit
  2. Tusk all but rules out pan-EU candidates in 2019 elections
  3. Tusk: EU budget agreed before 2019 elections 'unrealistic'
  4. Commission fines car cartels €546m
  5. Juncker: 'nothing' wrong in Katainen meeting Barroso
  6. Juncker appoints new head of cabinet
  7. MEPs decide not to veto fossil fuel projects list
  8. Factory relocation risks drawing Vestager into Italian election

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Aid & Trade LondonJoin Thousands of Stakeholders of the Global Aid Industry at Aid & Trade London
  2. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.European Free Alliance Joins MHRMI to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  3. International Climate ShowSupporting Start-Ups & SMEs in the Energy Transition. 21 February in Brussels
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism Year to Promote Business and Mutual Ties
  5. European Jewish CongressAt “An End to Antisemitism!” Conference, Dr. Kantor Calls for Ambitious Solutions
  6. UNESDAA Year Ago UNESDA Members Pledged to Reduce Added Sugars in Soft Drinks by 10%
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  8. EPSUMovie Premiere: 'Up to The Last Drop' - 22 February, Brussels
  9. CESICESI@Noon on ‘Digitalisation & Future of Work: Social Protection For All?’ - March 7
  10. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  12. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP

Latest News

  1. UK seeks flexible transition length after Brexit
  2. Commission defence of Barroso meeting leaves 'discrepancies'
  3. MEPs bar WMD and killer robots from new EU arms fund
  4. Canete gets EU parliament pension while still commissioner
  5. Bank of Latvia sends deputy to ECB amid bribery probe
  6. We are not (yet) one people
  7. Intellectual property protection - the cure for Europe's ills
  8. Eastern states push back at rule of law conditions on funds

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.Suing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name
  2. Dialogue PlatformBeyond the Errors in the War on Terror: How to Fight Global Militarism - 22 February
  3. Swedish EnterprisesHarnessing Globalization- at What Cost? Keynote Speaker Commissioner Malmström
  4. European Friends of ArmeniaSave The Date 28/02: “Nagorno-Karabakh & the EU: 1988-2018”
  5. European Heart NetworkSmart CAP is Triple Win for Economy, Environment and Health
  6. European Free AlllianceEFA Joined the Protest in Aiacciu to Solicit a Dialogue After the Elections
  7. EPSUDrinking Water Directive Step Forward but Human Right to Water Not Recognized
  8. European Gaming & Betting AssociationGambling Operators File Data Protection Complaint Against Payment Block in Norway
  9. European Jewish CongressEJC Expresses Deep Concern Over Proposed Holocaust Law in Poland
  10. CECEConstruction Industry Gets Together to Discuss the Digital Revolution @ the EU Industry Days
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Relations in the New Era
  12. European Free AlllianceEnd Discrimination of European Minorities - Sign the Minority Safepack Initiative