EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy has told EU leaders unofficially to bring three shirts. He's obviously expecting the talks to be tough and long. Patience and tactical skill are required.
Officially, EU summits are always scheduled for around a day and a half: Thursday evening until Friday midday. For that you need a night in a hotel and one change of shirt. But according to those who are close to the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, he and others heads of government who have started their talks in Brussels expect that the talks will have to go on until at least Saturday. Van Rompuy isn't going to say that out loud, because it might make it look as if the EU was divided and couldn't reach agreement.
Counting the shirts is a ritual which began 12 years ago at a summit in Nice, where the leaders were talking about the EU's expansion to the East. The summit was scheduled to last two days but it lasted five. First, say diplomats who were there, the leaders ran out of clean clothes, and then food began to run short.
A trillion-euro argument
Travelers on the Brussels subway are better informed than the official statements: the electronic displays talk of disruptions till Saturday.
Every seven years the EU holds a marathon when the leaders discuss the budget framework for the next seven years. The European Commission wants 1.09 trillion euros ($1.4 trillion) for the period 2014-2020. That allows for quite a moderate increase, according to Reimer Böge, who sits on the European Parliament's budget committee. But most of those countries which are net contributors to the budget don't agree. Van Rompuy has already proposed cuts of 75 billion.
Everyone must agree
The British prime minister, David Cameron, made it clear as he entered the council's headquarters in Brussels that this wasn't enough.
"I'm not at all happy," he said. "We're going to be negotiating very hard for a good deal for Britain's taxpayers and for Europe's taxpayers."
The British government wants 200 billions off the budget - some 20 percent - and it's threatening to use its veto. This budget can only be agreed unanimously, and so the British have to be convinced.
"I cannot imagine how we will be able to convince them," Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said with a smile, "but they will have to let themselves be convinced."
Meanwhile, Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister of Sweden, which is also a net contributor, wants to defend the rebate his country gets on its membership dues. Anything else would be unfair, he said, and added that he sympathized with Cameron's desire to defend Britain's rebate with tooth and nail.
Seven years ago, the British rebate was also a big issue, and it was only solved when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, put extra German money on the table and mediated between Poland and the rest of the EU.
Hunting for bargains in Brussels
It's not just Britain this time which is threatening a veto: the French president, Francois Hollande, has said he'll say "non" if agricultural subsidies are reduced. It's French farmers who profit the most from what is the largest element in the EU budget. Spain and Lithuania for their parts reject any cuts in the regional fund, from which they benefit. Each of the 27 leaders has his or her own pet interest which has to be considered somewhere in the budget.
Father Herman takes confession
Ahead of the main meeting in the conference room on the top floor of the council building, Van Rompuy and the commission president, Jose Manual Barroso have been in a small room in the building, talking to each of the leaders separately. The EU diplomats call this "confession." The meetings allow Rompuy the Confessor to find out where the lines in the sand are and where compromises might be possible.
Each leader gets just 20 minutes, but the confessions last altogether some nine hours. One of the first in the room was David Cameron; one of the last was Angela Merkel, who speaks for the country which pays the most.
Van Rompuy has planned further confessions for Friday. During this process, the rest of the leaders have nothing to do, so they meet in bilateral talks to agree on their strategy. According to a diplomat who prefers not to be named, they might also travel into the city to do some shopping, or they may take a nap: "The important heads of government hate nothing more than having to wait. The longer it goes on, the more worn-down they get." And that, he says, is Van Rompuy's strategy.
The fine details of the budget have already been worked out long ago by the delegations of the 27 member states, the commission and the parliament, which has to agree in the end. The summit is the stage for the leaders to show that they are doing everything to protect the interests of their voters.
"The public needs to know that they've really gone to the limit," said political consultant Matthias Schranner during the last summit in June. "Just imagine if all the leaders came out after an hour and said, 'That's it, then.' Nobody would believe they'd squeezed out everything they could."
The summits follow a script: as one diplomat put it, the longer the session and the later the hour, the more dramatic the breakthrough. Few of the leaders present at this meeting were there last time in 2006. Only Merkel and Juncker were there as leaders; the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite was then EU budget commissioner and had to deal with the figures in great detail.
The German delegation is saying it wouldn't be so terrible if there were no agreement. Böge of the parliamentary budget committee is also not that worried. If the leaders don't agree, the old budget will simply be carried forward. Ahead of the meeting, Merkel spoke of "a second stage" which might be needed. "It's about the ability of the union to deal with the future," she said, but expenditure must be limited at a time of crisis.
Reinfeldt told a reporter, "I've got time," and the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, said he has five shirts with him: "I'm set up for Sunday or even Monday."