Photographer: Marco Wong/Getty Images

A One-Company Town Whose Gossip Could Shape Brexit Agreement

  • Naked saunas and Michelin restaurants add to the Brussels mix
  • Thousands of diplomats and journalists give city its intrigue

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In the shadow of the European Commission in Brussels, the Dal Padrino restaurant hums to the lunchtime chatter of politicians and journalists chewing over the latest piece of intrigue.

From Brexit to Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to the city he once branded a “hellhole,” there’s no shortage of fodder. With tens of thousands of diplomats, officials and journalists from each of the European Union’s 28 nations and the rest of the world, secrets in Brussels don’t stay that way for long and it’s something the U.K. is already coming to terms with.

Michel Barnier

Photographer: Giulio Napolitano/Bloomberg

“A lot of negotiations are informal and they take place outside the actual negotiating room,” former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who lived in the Belgian capital for nine years as a civil servant and lawmaker, said in a telephone interview. “One of the key things as a serious player in Brussels is to have a broad contact network.”

With the Brexit talks not even under way yet, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May got an early taste of the city’s tongue-wagging culture, blaming “Brussels gossip” for leaks of her supposedly confidential dinner last month with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s Brexit chief Michel Barnier in London.

Gossip Cauldron

The fallout served as a wake-up call about how business gets done in a town where countries have varying -- and often clashing -- interests on policies ranging from trade and transport to fisheries and financial regulation, and where the EU’s three main decision-making bodies vie for attention.

Like in the U.S. company towns that sprang up around a single employer, there’s only one reason that the bars, stores and eateries in the EU quarter of Brussels exist. The city boasts 5,400 diplomats, the highest number in the world according to a 2016 Brussels government study. Add to that the 20,000 lobbyists with an annual budget of 1.5 billion euros; 40,000 EU employees and almost 1,000 permanent journalists from more than 30 countries and you’ve got a fertile environment for gossip to spread.

The scale and variety of nationalities make Brussels comparable to cities like Washington, even though its history dates back to the Middle Ages, with the groundwork for its fabled city center -- a Gothic tourist attraction called the Grand Place -- being laid more than 600 years before the founding of the U.S. capital.

From Czech street markets to Scottish churches, Romanian doctors to German schnitzel restaurants, and Portuguese football bars to Estonian-language schooling, Brussels is the epitome of European multiculturalism.

‘Question of Discretion’

Serving up dishes of seafood linguine and Sicilian swordfish, Dal Padrino manager Gino Ridolfini frequently finds himself seating European commissioners, top civil servants, ambassadors and national ministers -- ensuring their tables are out of earshot from one another.

“Many deals in Brussels are made over a plate,” Ridolfini said, as three sharply dressed diners showed up apologizing that they hadn’t made a reservation. “They want to discuss in peace, so it’s a question of discretion.”

Since the U.K. joined the EU in 1973, tabloid newspapers have caricatured Brussels as a dull city, full of pen-pushers who like nothing better than to draft reams of technical legislation on the curvature of bananas or the power of toasters. That has helped reinforce the perception of the city as a boring administrative place without much spark.

But behind the bland facades of the EU institutions is a town full of chatter, where people firm up work connections after running into each other on sidewalks or at the gym. It’s a city where professional relationships and policy get forged over long lunches, evening cocktails or dinner in one of the city’s 26 Michelin-starred restaurants.

Secure Talks

“The game in Brussels is played on so many levels it is hard to contain,” said Kornelios Korneliou, a former Cypriot ambassador to the EU.

He cited as an example EU talks between diplomats over sanctions on Russia that took place “in a secure room on the seventh floor” of the European Council’s headquarters. “As soon as we left the room we saw tweets from journalists naming the countries that raised objections.”

The Brexit talks start in earnest after the British elections on June 8. While EU officials have pushed for the negotiations to be “transparent” at every turn, the U.K. wants a more confidential approach.

Bickering between the U.K. and Brussels underscores the hurdles that will need to be overcome as the discussions begin and the gulf that separates the two political cultures. The British media has speculated on EU officials’ social lives, with a particular focus on their drinking habits, even as cocktail diplomacy has become an accepted feature of the Brussels political climate.

In September 2011, when the bloc’s leaders descended on the Belgian capital to try to avert a Greek debt crisis from dragging down the euro, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seen sipping wine with her aides past 1 a.m. in the bar of the Hotel Amigo, just off the Grand Place. (At a similar marathon meeting last year on the same topic, Merkel opted for a late-night stroll to the city’s famous Maison Antoine kiosk for some fries rather than a drinking session.)

Diplomatic Machinery

Some British diplomats lamented the departure of Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s French-speaking ambassador to the EU who stepped down in January after being criticized by members of May’s government. ​With Rogers having previously held a senior post in the European Commission, ​his resignation deprived the U.K. of a civil servant with a thorough understanding of the backroom horsetrading that oils Brussels’ diplomatic machinery.

And in line with Brussels’s diversity, there’s more than one way of building relationships, exchanging information and blurring the lines between work and pleasure in the EU’s de facto capital -- and different nationalities bring their own styles.

Alexander Stubb

Photographer: Henrik Kettunen/Bloomberg

For the British, there’s the press revue -- an annual extravaganza of comedy and music where politicians, spokesmen and journalists gather to make fun of Europe and of each other. For those originating from northern Europe, deal-making is sometimes even done naked.

“We did do some sauna diplomacy,” said ex-Finnish leader Stubb. “We used to joke that we didn’t let people out until we got the result we wanted.”

— With assistance by Jonathan Stearns, Kati Pohjanpalo, and Nikos Chrysoloras

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