It was the culinary equivalent of a European Commission non-paper.
Ahead of an informal EU leaders’ summit on Friday, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel hosted an unofficial dinner for 12 of his colleagues — including the two most powerful, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron — at the Château of Val-Duchesse, a mansion house a short drive east of Brussels’ European Quarter.
Rumored to be on the menu: an off-the-record chat about potential candidates for senior EU leadership positions with an eye toward next year’s European election, according to one well-placed diplomat.
European Council President Donald Tusk, the official convenor of Friday’s summit, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did not attend the dinner.
“It’s very nice to have these informal settings because they can really speak freely and discuss whatever is on their minds” — Belgian official
A spokesman for Tusk said it was not unusual for “sub-groups” of leaders to meet ahead of official summits, and that as chairman of the entire Council, Tusk did not attend such gatherings.
But the dinner hosted by Michel was larger than most mini-summits and included a broader cross-section of leaders than is normally found in the EU’s various “clubs” such as the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) or the southern Club Med (Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain).
And the presence of Merkel and Macron, the power duo sometimes called “Mercron,” added further prestige and mystique to the pre-summit meal.
The other guests on Thursday night, according to a Belgian official, were: Boyko Borisov (Bulgaria); Juha Sipilä (Finland); Leo Varadkar (Ireland); Paolo Gentiloni (Italy); Xavier Bettel (Luxembourg); Mateusz Morawiecki (Poland); António Costa (Portugal); Robert Fico (Slovakia); and Mariano Rajoy (Spain). Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, initially turned down the invitation but reworked his schedule in order to make it.
The well-placed diplomat said the dinner discussion was expected to include such topics as the EU’s next long-term budget, migration, trade, and the future of the eurozone — along with potential chit-chat about who might fill the leadership posts.
“It’s where they can also start discussing the names for the future institutional configuration,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Michel took the initiative because “he really feels we should be more dynamic.”
“It’s very nice to have these informal settings because they can really speak freely and discuss whatever is on their minds,” the Belgian official said
At European Council summits, the leaders’ dinner meetings often yield the most intense, and interesting, conversations, and the meals often involve careful diplomatic planning and choreography to make sure there is an appropriate record of what is said, or a purposeful lack of any record. Topics to be avoided can be as important as topics to be covered.
The Château of Val-Duchesse is an estate with a storied place in EU history — it was where Paul-Henri Spaak convened talks to prepare the Treaty of Rome, and the creation of the European Economic Community and the Euratom treaty.
No press conference was planned after Thursday’s dinner, but the Belgian government was expected to permit some photos. And just as Commission non-papers contain real words, the non-dinner featured real food.