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European Council meeting: What goes on inside the room at EU summits?

Simon Harris will find that the meeting involves high politics, or ‘senior hurling’ in Irish political vernacular

After the door was closed at the start of the European Council summit on Wednesday evening, Taoiseach Simon Harris will have done well not to feel a little nervous.

The coming together of the leaders of the 27 EU countries, without officials or advisers, is a big step up from the Cabinet table in Government Buildings. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and Charles Michel, who chairs the meetings as council president, also attend. In the world of the interlocking – and often competing – EU institutions, the council is effectively the voice of the member states, via the heads of their national governments. EU summits are high politics, or “senior hurling” in Irish political vernacular.

In years past they have been the backdrop to high drama, such as mammoth negotiations with then Greek leader, the left-wing Alexis Tsipras, over bailouts for Greece during the euro zone crisis. In the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Theresa May, then Conservative prime minister, cut a lonely and isolated figure at council meetings. During the height of Brexit negotiations May had to leave and eat separately, while the other 27 leaders discussed their position over dinner. When Angela Merkel was German chancellor she was always a big presence in the meetings, with a sense that when she talked, those in the room listened.

More recently Viktor Orban has been a stick between the bicycle spokes of much sought-after unanimity around the council table. At a meeting last December the Hungarian leader vetoed a €50 billion package of aid to help Ukraine in the war with Russia, holding it up for two months before he was brought around.


During the same meeting late last year it looked like a vote to allow Ukraine to start talks about joining the EU would also end in deadlock. A fudge was found whereby Orban temporarily stepped out of the meeting, allowing the remaining 26 leaders to reach agreement and approve the proposal.

In some cases leaders attending their first summit can keep their head down, in others they have tried to make themselves known. Right-wing Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni sought to make a big statement inside the room during her first meeting, indicating – at least at an EU level – that she would not necessarily be sitting in Orban’s camp.

Foreign policy, such as the fallout of Iran’s missile attacks on Israel, the war in Gaza, and EU relations with Turkey, was expected to dominate the council discussion over dinner on Wednesday evening. The agenda on Thursday is for a wide-ranging debate on how to make the EU more competitive economically.

A lot of the substance of what is to be agreed is hashed out by officials and ambassadors in meetings in advance of the summit. In that sense the “conclusions” announced at the end are semi-written beforehand. Regardless, it is usually still a grind to get everyone to the point where they fully agree to sign off on the text.

Personal relationships between leaders that cut across, or are even contrary to, geographical or political lines, can be crucial in garnering support in the room for or against some measure. Micheál Martin was known to be friendly with Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas and Michel. Leo Varadkar is understood to have had a relatively good working relationship with Orban, despite their political differences.

On that front Harris has work to do to build up a rapport with others. He met von der Leyen, Michel and a handful of other leaders last week. His one-to-one sit-down with Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez in Dublin last Friday will have been important to get the pair on the same page, as Ireland and Spain are natural allies when it comes to Gaza and the recognition of the state of Palestine.

Ideologically, the fact Fine Gael sits in the European People’s Party (EPP) means Harris is one of nearly a dozen national leaders, as well as von der Leyen, in the same centre-right grouping.

Another lesser-known meeting that takes place in advance of summits is likely to have given Harris a further opportunity to find his feet. The Nordic and Baltic countries, along with Ireland and Poland, have in recent times met before the full council, on a more informal basis. Increasingly this group has been able to exert pressure on issues where they align, to try to act as somewhat of a counterbalance to the traditional dominance of France and Germany during council summits.