No time for parties

2011-12-22 00:00

FOR Brussels bureaucrats, the run-up to Christmas used to involve a flurry of cocktail parties, relaxed liquid lunches and a chance to knock off early to escape the glass-and-steel office blocks of the city’s European quarter.

But two years into a debilitating debt crisis, the routine has shifted dramatically. High and low-level meetings are scheduled right up until Christmas Eve and members of the European Parliament, often derided for their lesser workload, were holding critical negotiations up until yesterday.

Coffee and sandwich shops around the European Commission and European Council, often shuttered by this time of year, are still open for business as office printers continue to churn out updated working papers and copies of a new “fiscal compact” designed to tighten euro zone budget controls.

“There’s been absolutely no let-up since the summer break,” said one drained official involved in debt-crisis resolution. “I’m on stand-by over Christmas and you just don’t know the surprises that might be sprung on us.”

Emergency summits and unexpected extra meetings, many lasting through the night, have become the norm for eurocrats more accustomed to fixed working hours and a family-friendly employment culture. On the upside, they typically earn higher salaries than they would in the civil services of their home countries.

Finance ministers scheduled a conference call on Monday to discuss new loans to the International Monetary Fund, while European Central Bank President Mario Draghi was scheduled to address a committee at the European Parliament. An ad-hoc group of officials and EU parliamentarians met on Tuesday to work on tougher budget rules for the 17 euro zone countries.

In the myriad corridors of the European Commission, the EU’s executive, dozens of officials are finalising reports or brainstorming proposals to try to calm fevered financial markets, with high bond yields threatening Spain, Italy and potentially France, the region’s second-largest economy.

“We are in sort of eternal crisis mode, so there’s no time for Christmas parties,” said another EU official, who said he had worked every weekend since mid-November. “Normally, it would be all over by this time of year. It would be very quiet, but everything’s changed.”

After an all-night summit on December 8 and December 9, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, who chairs meetings of EU leaders, returned home at 6.15 am to find one of his grandchildren asleep in his bed. After freshening up, he made his way straight back to work, without a wink of sleep.

The strain is showing at many of the embassies in Brussels, where diplomats lay the groundwork for their leaders’ discussions. Eighteen summits have been held since the crisis began in early 2010, and the EU is already considering another one for late January or early February.

One EU diplomat described how his embassy organised stress-management training, with a recommendation always to stop work by 8 pm. “We all just laughed when we heard that,” said the diplomat, who frequently eats lunch and dinner at his computer.

Others lament how little they see their families, especially their young children. “I think my wife wants this debt crisis resolved more than Angela Merkel does,” said another diplomat, referring to the German chancellor.

With no clarity on how euro zone leaders will find a way out of the crisis, EU officials say it is crucial they get some rest this Christmas before the next all-nighter.

“I’m not going anywhere over Christmas. I just couldn’t face being delayed in an airport or a train station,” said one official.

— Reuters.

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