Cod, shrimp and iPad jokes _ backstage at the Brexit summit
BRUSSELS (AP) — Angela Merkel and Theresa May laughed at their matching jackets. European presidents and prime ministers haggled about Britain’s future over a cod-and-shrimp dinner. Then after digesting their iced macadamia nut dessert, they decided to extend Brexit until the stroke of midnight on Halloween.
It’s all in a day’s work at the EU, where regional rivals get together for high-power dinner parties and decide the continent’s future by talking, talking and talking some more until no one has an argument left to disagree.
A tense diplomatic ballet played out all day Wednesday in the European Quarter of Brussels, culminating in an emergency EU Brexit summit that dragged into the early hours of Thursday, with Britain’s future hanging in the balance .
The backdoor politicking began hours beforehand: The Dutch prime minister played messenger between ally May and harder-line EU leaders. The French and German leaders, playing bad cop-good cop , had their own huddle. A mini-club of North Sea countries gathered elsewhere.
It’s the only way the EU can ever come to the necessary consensus, and often seems baffling to outsiders — but the EU has elevated it into an art.
The summit itself appeared to get off to a relaxed start. Three of the European leaders took off their jackets while they gathered around a round table decorated with pink roses and carnations.
Germany’s Merkel then walked over to Britain’s May, tablet computer at the ready. The two leaders intently looked at the screen before sharing a hearty laugh.
So what did Europe’s most powerful women — often on opposite sides of the painful, protracted Brexit debate — find so funny? The leading theory: It had something to do with their matching jackets, the brilliant blue of the EU flag.
May then took the floor, pleading with her peers to extend Brexit again, speaking for just over an hour before she was effectively ejected so the remaining EU members could debate whether the prime minister made a convincing case.
It was a special kind of European dinner party: EU leaders each had their turn to talk in between bites and sips. After 27 speeches, they kept talking, until they reached an agreement on extending Brexit until Oct. 31.
On the menu du jour: warm scallop salad, cod with shrimp and mini-mushroom arancini rice balls, followed by iced macadamia nut parfait for dessert.
As usual at EU meetings, the menu carried political undertones. Tension erupted between French and British fishermen earlier this year over scallop-fishing rights, while cod has been a source of dispute for decades.
May meanwhile had dinner off-campus — asparagus for starter, roast lamb and fruit to cleanse the palate.
Even before she arrived in Brussels, May was already being treated like a bit of an EU outcast. The official summit brochure with leaders’ photographs relegated the head of the British government to the level of “Guest.”
There was action in the streets of Brussels, too: Anti-Brexit protesters staged a rally, while Greenpeace strung a giant banner on an EU building reading “Blah Blah Brexit — Stop climate Chaos.”
Some of Wednesday’s summit drama began well before European Council President Donald Tusk officially opened the evening meeting in the multicolored main room in the Europa building, an architectural gem looking like a Grecian urn sitting in a glass box.
Earlier in the day, Belgium hosted six other nations close to the U.K. — Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland and Denmark — at the neoclassical Egmont Palace across town, amid mountains of marble and gilded chandeliers, to plot strategy.
But not everyone liked this idea. Rumors quickly surfaced that the special “mini-summit” was a plot to set out tough terms for Britain’s new extension and put the other EU leaders before a fait-accompli. Quickly diplomats had to play down the meeting, saying it was just to “coordinate” plans in case of a no-deal.
Sometimes it can get to be just too much.
At a 2016 summit when Britain was yet again the troublemaker, Merkel walked out of the building and went to a French fry shack close by, for a healthy dose of the Belgian delight.