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Tired EU leaders look to strike debt deal

EU headquarters, Brussels.

BRUSSELS — The European Union may have won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, but to many EU leaders, officials, diplomats and even journalists, it can feel more like a torture chamber.

Increasingly, Europe is governed at night by leaders in an advanced state of exhaustion, disregarding scientific evidence that this can lead to bad decisions, or non-decisions.

Over the past three years, the EU has held 25 summits to try to tackle its debt crisis and related economic turmoil, with few of those meetings ending before 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. – usually after 12 hours or more of near-fruitless negotiation.

Add to that more than 40 finance ministers’ meetings – the most recent of which ended at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, again without agreement – and it is easy to see how a set of institutions designed to foster peace and stability in Europe can end up delivering frustration, angst and head-numbing pain.

“I’ll put it this way: I woke up at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m. yesterday and we ended in the morning around 4 a.m.,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico complained after the last, largely unsuccessful summit in October.

“This is how all of us operate, we adopt very serious decisions under pressure,” he said, referring to the EU’s increasingly weary heads of state and Government.

The EU’s 27 leaders gathered for another summit today and tomorrow, this time to try to hammer out an agreement on around ‚1 trillion of spending over the next seven years.

It promises to be a bruising clash of national interests rather than the model of reconciliation and harmony commended by the Nobel committee, although it will still be “jaw, jaw” rather than “war, war”.

Gatherings to negotiate the long-term budget only happen every six or seven years and are notorious for running over deadline and for being extremely hard-nosed and ill-tempered affairs.

Tough negotiations

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described his experience of it in 2005 as the most difficult negotiation he handled while in office – tougher even than the 1998 Northern Ireland peace talks that led to the Good Friday agreement.

Already EU officials are warning that these budget talks could run into Saturday and Sunday – making it what is known in diplomatic circles as a “four-shirt” summit.

Staff at the European Council in Brussels, where EU leaders meet, have been told to be ready to work into Saturday at least. British Prime Minister David Cameron has cleared his schedule for the entire weekend, a spokesman said. French President Francois Hollande has done the same.

Journalists – around 1,500 of whom are accredited to cover the meeting – took up residence in the vast glass and steel entrance hall this morning and will stay encamped there until a deal is done, or negotiations break down. (Reuters)

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