Like a pack of over-dressed late summer tourists, they streamed out of the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Midi on Tuesday morning with their roller-bags and duffels. Their mission, however, was not to drink Kriek lambic in the Grand Place but to spend another week — well, 72 hours to be more precise — extricating the United Kingdom from its four-decade membership in the EU.
There are easier ways to spend three days in Brussels.
By this third round of formal Brexit negotiations, a certain routine has taken hold for the dozens of British civil servants and their rivals from the European Commission’s “Task Force 50,” a name that, fittingly perhaps, sounds like something out of a “Mission Impossible” film.
Here are some snapshots of their week:
Monday 5 p.m.: Obligatory photo op
It was a bank holiday in the U.K. so most of the London team didn’t arrive until Tuesday morning, and the day was largely lost. But Britain’s lead negotiator, David Davis, wanted to demonstrate his commitment to the talks and made the customary ceremonial arrival at the European Commission headquarters late Monday afternoon.
“Welcome back, David,” said his opposite number Michel Barnier, adding without much enthusiasm: “I look forward to working with you this week.” As before, the two men pledged to roll up their sleeves. “Let’s do it,” Davis said. It was a virtual replay of his two previous ceremonial arrivals, and as the men walked off without taking questions, a TV reporter shouted after them: “It sounds like Groundhog Day, gentlemen.”
Tuesday 11 a.m.: Badge bother
As anyone who conducts business with the EU institutions knows, getting in and out of buildings in the European Quarter is no easy trick. And, like all visitors, the U.K. negotiators need temporary badges to get inside the Commission’s Berlaymont building, where the talks are taking place. There were wrinkles in June and July, and officials said the process remains “laborious.” The British team moves “en masse” and European Commission protocol staff pick them up to let them in as a pre-approved group to the Berlaymont, one official said.
The Brits often get about town in minibuses, and are urged not to take public transport to avoid running into inquisitive journalists or leaving sensitive documents on the metro. So careful are they that sometimes British negotiators are transported the 300 meter hop from UKRep (the country’s EU embassy), around the Schuman roundabout to the Berlaymont. “We need to avoid journalists, the rain, and the Russians,” one of the British team joked about the Brits’ fondness for being chauffeured everywhere they go.
Tuesday 12:30 p.m.: Money troubles
The only way the working group session on the so-called financial settlement could have been hotter is if it had been held in the Commission’s basement sauna (yes, there really is one).
The teams, led by Mark Bowman for the U.K. and Stéphanie Riso for the EU,convened in a sixth-floor conference room, with views of the ornate oak-frame facade of the European Council’s Europa Building (known locally as the space egg), allowing bored or distracted negotiators to look across Rue de la Loi and daydream of “sufficient progress.”
Negotiators sat around the oval wooden table, on sleek red-cushioned chairs with gray-metal trim, as the British side laid out its legal analysis. The Brits did not want to put their views on the financial question in writing, but they brought a PowerPoint deck, which they displayed on a large-screen monitor at the front of the room.
Bottom-line: London disagreed with the EU’s core premise that financial obligations extend beyond the U.K.’s exit date, particularly regarding the current long-term budget plan, which runs up to 2020. EU negotiators reacted with a mix of fury and disbelief to the presentation, which in their view went on dreadfully long, one EU participant said. One EU official described the U.K. analysis as “totally contradictory with the EU.” It was by far the tensest session yet. As Davis said at a news conference Thursday, “Nobody will pretend it was anything but a tough exchange.”
Tuesday 4 p.m.: Break time
The conference rooms are typically stocked with bottled water. But on most negotiating days, coffee, tea, biscuits and other nibbles are served mid-morning and mid-afternoon in one of the central communal spaces. (Talks can take place on any of several floors depending on the availability of rooms.) Lunch — “cold plates,” in Berlaymont lingo — is also served in those central areas, which can be used as break-out meeting spaces, but on Tuesday, negotiators got a late start. Many of the negotiators on both sides know each other from previous work in the civil service and the atmosphere during breaks is generally amicable, officials said, unlike the sessions in the working groups, which, while so far always polite, at times resemble heated academic debates.
Tuesday 6:30 p.m.: Dinner at the ambassador’s house
After talks wrap up, senior negotiators meet with their chief Olly Robbins to debrief (Davis by this time had headed back home to London).
After that, the British have adopted a routine of heading for a big team dinner at Ambassador Tim Barrow’s residence at 17 Rue Ducale, a plush 19th-century townhouse mansion overlooking the Parc Royal in the center of Brussels. On Tuesday, a buffet was laid on. “They all share war stories with their comrades,” said one individual familiar with the British team’s routine. “There’s a team spirit and a team dynamic.”
According to author and former British ambassadorial building manager Mark Bertram, who has a blog called “Room for Diplomacy,” the interior of 17 Rue Ducale is “of outstanding quality and contains exceptionally fine 18th-century boiseries, textiles and furniture.” In other words, it’s just the place to recover from a day of directives, regulations and cold bureaucratic stares.
Wednesday 1:10 p.m.: Barnier at the canteen
The top negotiators so far have not been drawn into the day-to-day talks, a reflection of the fact that the two sides seem nowhere near tackling the toughest political questions. After Monday’s opening remarks, Davis headed back to London, as he did after the opening of the July talks.
Barnier meanwhile, went to work, as usual, on the fifth floor of the Berlaymont, his schedule cleared in case he might be needed.
On Wednesday shortly after 1 pm, he was lunching at the Commission canteen with his close team, including adviser Stefaan de Rynck, and personal assistant Barthélemy Piche. Barnier queued up to pay just like any other Commission civil servant. And he ate light: salmon and taboulé salad. No wine.
Wednesday afternoon: Off-the-record briefing
It was off the record, so we can’t tell you when, where or what was said by whom. But rest assured: if we know it, you’ve already read it on POLITICO.
Wednesday 7 p.m.: Dinner with D.D.
On Wednesday night, some of the U.K. team gathered for a smaller British debrief dinner at Barrow’s residence with Davis — back in town — and senior officials. They digested the outcome of talks and laid plans for the following day’s wrap-up meetings.
Thursday 12:30 p.m.: Closing press conference
See you again in three weeks.