Why British prime ministers won't miss going to EU Council summits
From Harold Wilson onward, every prime minister has dreaded attending EU summits - they represent the best and worst of the EU.
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Thursday 9 March 2017 17:36, UKImage: Does he miss it? David Cameron at an EU summit last year Why you can trust Sky News
This week's European Council marks the last time a British prime minister is attending an EU summit with fellow political leaders as a full member.
By the end of the month the UK will have one foot irrevocably out of the door because Theresa May has promised to trigger Article 50 beginning the formal exit process by then.
UK leaders won't miss these summits - from Harold Wilson onward every prime minister has found them an irritation and has usually rushed away at the earliest opportunity.
This is because European Councils represent the best and worst of what is now known as the European Union.EU Brexit negotiator struggles to escape Sky News man
European Councils are when the elected prime ministers and presidents of the member states come together to agree policy - everything from the budget to pay for the EU to statements on global crises.Advertisement
Most important decisions are taken by unanimity, which means that one member can have a veto on what all the others want to do.
Routine business is handled through QMV - qualified majority voting - so a relatively insignificant group of countries in terms of size and wealth can still block the will of the others.
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Either way, British ministers have always been irritated by the rules of the club that effectively one member matters as much as any other.Image: Having a ball... Theresa May at an EU meeting in December
Since they started in 1975, there have been 178 European Councils. I began reporting from them around number 28, and so I must have attended around 100 meetings.
Not that reporters or the general public are allowed to see what goes on. Except for a brief photocall at the start, cameras are banned from the council chamber once proper business starts.
Each leader is there alone, except for one note-taker known as an 'antici' (in honour of an Italian bureaucrat). Even then much of the most vital work, including discussing Brexit, takes place at informal dinners after the official meeting.
To find out what happened we have to rely on what they tell us afterwards and the written conclusions of each meeting.
At least European Councils used to be a chance for leaders and their entourages to experience each others' countries.
Until 2000 they were travelling circuses usually held on the home territory of the nation holding the presidency (which rotates between all the members).A very European divorce: The story so far
But as EU membership grew these temporary tent cities became increasingly ungainly and expensive.
At the Nice summit the host, Jacques Chirac, cut a deal with Belgium. From then on Brussels would host all council meetings, in exchange nobody raised any awkward questions about why the European Parliament splits its time between Brussels and Strasbourg in France.
So for the past 17 years a dull office block in the so-called eurozone named after Renaissance Flemish lawyer Justus Lipsius has hosted European Councils and the hundreds of journalists who turn up to cover what their prime ministers and presidents are up to.
Needlessly to say, the Justus Lipsius building wasn't big enough - first the underground car park was taken over for offices, then the open central courtyard was covered over.
Now a new £300m egg-shaped home, the Europa building, has been constructed next door, purpose-built for the council.Image: A brand new home: the leaders meeting in the Europa building
There is no deadline for how long a council meeting lasts. Traditionally, eurocrats measure a summit by how many shirts each visit may require, assuming they change their linen every day.
The Nice summit was a corker because it decided how power and pork would be distributed between the members. It was meant to start on Friday and end at Saturday lunchtime - when all the on-site catering, including water, stopped.
Unfortunately we couldn't tell when the horse-trading would end. It dragged on until dawn on Monday, which explains why there is a picture still circulating of me stretched out in my working gear catching forty winks.Image: Here I am taking a nap at the Nice summit...
Rather than have a national leader chairing the council for six months, Nice decided that it would have its own full-time president.
The council president is one of the union's five presidents. (The others are from the parliament, the commission - bureaucracy - eurozone and central bank.)
The idea was that a permanent president would cut down on partisanship. Unfortunately the current Polish government is trying to deselect the current council president Donald Tusk, because he used to be Polish prime minister from a rival party.
So like David Cameron, Tony Blair and John Major before her, Theresa May will find herself sitting round a dinner table late into the night wondering when she can get away. The food used to be the same every dinner until some of the leaders complained recently.
It's not a great way to do business and it could be improved. Spend a few days in Brussels and it is difficult not to come away a eurosceptic.May: Article 50 bill about respecting the will of the people
On the other hand it was Winston Churchill who said "jaw-jaw" is better than "war-war".
For all its inefficiency the EU takes up a small portion of each countries national budget. Messy and bureaucratic for sure, the process also provides a peaceful way for 28 different nations to co-operate.
What really irked UK prime ministers about the EU was pooling sovereignty and being challenged by their equals.
There is no pomp and circumstance at EU meetings. Leaders either get along with each other or make no progress.
Thanks to the UK's referendum decision European Councils won't have British prime ministers to kick around for much longer. Nor will British hacks have to kick their heels in the antechamber.
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