EU summit: Misery does not love company

It is a pre-summit tradition in Brussels for the heads of state to divide up and huddle with their fellow partisan big-wigs for a few hours before the main event. The idea is that they are “coordinating their positions” – although one suspects they are probably trading gossip. 

The big excitement this afternoon will be at the gathering of the centre-right European People’s Party in a suburb outside Brussels. The expected attendees include the European Union’s heaviest heavyweights – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, to name a few.

Back in town – and just down the road from the Council building – a handful of Liberal Democrat leaders will congregate, including Ireland’s Brian Cowen, the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Finland’s Mari Kiviniemi. 

But one group has called off its pre-summit powwow this time around. That would be the Socialists. A party spokesman said the group had taken the decision because its leaders met just last week at their party conference in Warsaw. Instead, they will make do with a simple pre-summit conference call.

Given the party’s roster, it is perhaps not surprising that its leaders would not be so eager to meet. The big names include the bailed-out – Greece’s George Papandreou - and those sitting uncomfortably in Klaus Regling’s waiting room – Spain’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Portugal’s Jose Socrates. (Mr Regling is the chief executive of the European Financial Stability Facility, the eurozone’s €440bn bail-out fund).

One imagines it would not be too much fun for those gentlemen to swap tales of austerity and civil unrest. In any case, it may be a shrewd decision not to hold a Socialist meeting. Doing so would only expose those leaders and other party officials to a barrage of questions from the media about bailouts and debt restructuring. Given the EU’s painful inability of late to send a consistent message to financial markets, the fewer European officials near a microphone, the better. 

It’s also possible that the gang did not much enjoy their last pre-summit gathering in October. It was held at a dark and non-descript restaurant down a side street off the Parc Cinquantenaire. The weather was cold, food was sparse and reporters were smoking in a courtyard as a depressing French ballad played over the sound system. In short, it felt less like a party than a wake.