Everything revolves around the leaders. The 28 heads of government who comprise the European Union's highest decision-making body, the European Council, have traffic stopped, streets closed, doors opened and ways cleared for them.
They are whizzed in at high speed from the airport by an armada of motorcycle outriders and police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing. Their cavalcades deposit them at the vast glass-and-steel palaces that house the EU’s headquarters, where they are ushered through specially constructed VIP entrances, along lush red carpets, past the flags, past the press – perhaps stopping for a few words with a forest of journalists’ microphones – to the secure areas where only those with the highest security and diplomatic passes can venture.
The leaders themselves wear no passes; nobody asks them for their badges. They enter the summit chamber alone; their aides are not permitted. And then the leaders of Europe deliberate and decide.
Having twice told EU leaders she could pass the withdrawal treaty through the House of Commons and twice failed, May's credibility with her fellow leaders is not high
Except, on most things, they don’t, really. The decisions – the council’s conclusions – are largely agreed in advance by diplomats and officials in an intensive series of meetings that precedes each summit. The leaders may tweak them before signing off. But any changes are normally minimal.
This summit, though, was different. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the British position – and with Brexit Day looming just a week away – it was not possible to pre-cook the summit conclusions in the normal fashion. Instead, the leaders would hear from Mrs May, question her, and then decide on a way forward.
Privately, the prospect filled some senior officials with alarm – politicians drafting! – and there were only-half-joking predictions that the session would last until the early hours.
“What is she going to tell them?” everyone inquired of the small army of British journalists. God knows, came the typical response. But whatever it is, they might not believe it. Having twice told EU leaders she could pass the withdrawal treaty through the House of Commons and twice failed, May’s credibility with her fellow leaders is not high, to put it mildly.
‘Sense of crisis’
Before the summit, there were meetings of the European Parliament groups at locations around the European capital. Leo Varadkar was at the EPP, where the business of the day was drumming out Viktor Orban, the authoritarian prime minister whose anti-immigrant, anti-EU and xenophobic rhetoric , curbs on press and academic freedom alarm his Christian Democrat allies. Especially in an election year.
Emerging from the meeting, Varadkar reprised his “cut the British some slack” line. But he also warned that the British could not keep putting decisions off. And if the UK remained in the EU while the European Parliament elections were held, it would have to take part. This theme – we will try to help the British, but uphold EU conventions and institutions – would re-emerge later.
Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite proclaimed herself 'still optimistic'. It did not appear to be a widely held view
Micheál Martin was in town too, meeting with the alliance of liberals to which Fianna Fail belongs. "A real sense of crisis," was his summary of the mood. So far, though, events were progressing as he had expected. As Noel Grealish, the Independent TD from Galway had told him (he related to journalists): "Every single thing you said has come to pass, ie, there would be a deal, the deal may not get through the British parliament, it hasn't, hasn't got through the parliament the second time."
“We’re up to the wire,” Martin summarised.
So given his stellar record of predictions so far, what is going to happen to Brexit next week?
"I think it's going to be very difficult for Theresa May to get it through but I wouldn't rule it out ... You can't predict with any great certainty on that one," he says.
Back in the headquarters of the council, the pace was picking up. May was holding a series of bilateral meetings, including with French president Emmanuel Macron and with Varadkar and Helen McEntee, the increasingly visible Minister of State for European Affairs.
The leaders proceeded in past the banks of cameras and shouted questions from the journalists. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite proclaimed herself "still optimistic". It did not appear to be a widely held view.
Back in the common parts of the Lipsius building, Nigel Farage was peacocking about; no summit would be complete without him decrying it from within. But in truth, even the British have less and less interest in him these days.
According to several accounts, they asked May the same question: what will you do if you lose the next vote? Her answer remained the same: I believe I can win the next vote
Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson also buzzed around, distributing copies of the party’s answer to the Brexit crisis – a glossy pamphlet entitled Irish Unity – the Solution. Many unionists are changing their minds, she says. You can see a few problems with that one, all the same.
At about 3.30, the doors to the council chamber closed and Mrs May began her address to her fellow leaders, requesting the ratification of the Strasbourg clarifications and undertakings and the extension until June 30th. When she concluded, Mrs May was questioned for 90 minutes; it was neither comfortable nor satisfactory, many of the leaders thought.
According to several accounts – including an Irish one – from people briefed on the proceedings, they asked her the same question a dozen different ways: what will you do if you lose the next vote? Her answer remained the same: I believe I can win the next vote.
Their frustration was unmistakable. “Not always crystal clear” was one account. “Evasive and tightlipped” was another. Other summaries were considerable more brutal and profane. “It was f***ing awful,” said one report. “Dreadful.”
'March 29th is over, April 12th is the new 29th'
And then May was out; the council changed to “article 50 format”, or everyone except the British. For the next five hours or so, May remained outside while the other 27 leaders discussed what should be done about the chaotic British efforts to leave the bloc. Schedules came and went; the dinner was sent in (langoustine terrine, duck a l’orange, chocolate variations) and consumed. The leaders huddled together, discussing and drafting. Macron was bullish, dismissive of May, saying they must prepare for a crash-out exit now. Merkel, still the most important person in the room, was “searching for a solution”, said one person briefed on the proceedings. Outside, officials worried. Mrs May waited. And waited.
The solution, when it arrived was neat – a two-step deadline for the UK. If May can win a vote on the withdrawal agreement next week, the UK would be able to remain in the EU until May 22nd. But if MPs fail to back the deal next week, the prime minister could seek to negotiate an extension to the April 12th deadline – but only if she agreed to hold European Parliament elections on May 23rd.
It postpones the cliff edge of next week. It preserves the EU’s rules. And it gives MPs an opportunity, if May cannot get the deal through, to direct her to a different Brexit.
Said the Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen: "We left them with the opportunity to rethink the whole thing."
At a late-night press conference, council president Donald Tusk and commission president Jean-Claude Juncker were tired but upbeat. "Now I am much more optimistic," said Juncker.
Asked about his famous musings about a special place in hell for Brexiteers, Tusk joked: "According to our pope, hell is still empty. It means that's a lot of spaces." His spokesman swiftly brought the proceedings to an end. Afterwards, with midnight come and gone, journalists crowded around Juncker's spokesman, Maragritas Schinas. "March 29th is over," he summarised. "April 12th is the new 29th."
The following morning's British press headlines were brutal for May, who headed back to London "to start her work", said Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel.
Perhaps the most upbeat take was from one columnist in the Daily Telegraph. The headline read: “We’ve had worse humiliations than this”.
Reset, the clock began to tick once more.