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Behind the scenes of an informal. Photo documentary

(B2 in Brdo) An informal meeting is a real privileged moment of discussion for the ministers, both to discuss and to try to reconcile their points of view. B2 takes you out of the meeting room... what's going on there?

Gone are the days when the informal took place without a preconceived agenda, far from cameras and telephones. The agenda is now fairly tight, journalists are present. And social networks too. But the myth of the informal persists. Taking place once every six months, in the country holding the rotating presidency, the meeting remains unavoidable for a minister.

The success of such a meeting depends on a few small, essential things: the substance of the debate of course, but also the framework and the time. By the yardstick of these criteria, the two meetings which followed one another in Brdo in Slovenia – Thursday with the Ministers of Defense, Friday with those of Foreign Affairs – were a success. The theme of Afghanistan dominated the entire debate. The setting, the park and castle of Brdo, made available by the Slovenian presidency of the European Union, were idyllic, calm, green, with many nooks to converse quietly. And time has turned to the magnificent azure.

Around the table, it was something else, the debacle of Afghanistan left no one indifferent (Read: What to remember… informal defense and foreign affairs meetings (Brdo 2 and 3 September). Afghanistan dominates all conversations). And the time was not really for complacency. All the ministers had also made the trip. The few who were not there were represented by an assistant. The asides were therefore numerous.

The conference center where the main discussions take place, in the middle of a green park. Calm and tranquility assured. The only proximity are the sportsmen of the football team who train on the other side. (© NGV / B2)
The ritual of the family photo is essential. Not always very crazy. But no one misses it. This makes it possible to freeze for eternity the presence of each other. For AKK, the German minister, for example, it was the last time with her European defense colleagues... Barring an electoral surprise in Germany. Unlike other family photos, there is no reserved mark for each. Only a little white tape to get your bearings. Only the High Representative and the Slovenian host of the meeting have their dedicated place in the centre. The rest is placed haphazardly... or in the order of arrival. So much for the latecomers. (photo: EU Council)
The asides between ministers constitute another of the essential points of an informal meeting. And the discussion continues regardless of location. Even on the podium where the family photo takes place. Here the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell (on the left), with the host of the informal Defense meeting, the Slovenian Matej Tonin (on the right), and the Dutch Minister Ank Bijleveld (in the middle). (© NGV / B2)
The serious conversations continue, including on the podium. On the left, General Graziano and Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks. (© NGV / B2)
Ditto the next day between the two Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the French Jean-Yves Le Drian (on the right), with his counterpart - and friend - Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn (in the center, from behind). They are two of the 'veterans' of European meetings. Away, but with a watchful eye and ear, the Portuguese Augostos Santos Silva. The three valiantly defended a more open position vis-à-vis the 'most vulnerable' Afghans. Facing a determined front of determined supporters of a border closure (mainly central European countries). (© NGV / B2)
The point with the press has become an essential aspect of an informal. This was not the original objective. The Gymnich aimed above all to give ministers the possibility of discussing among themselves without the risk of being disturbed. Today, the press is there and there. And the passage through the strained microphones is if not obligatory at least recommended, at least for the one who wants to convey a message, especially at the national level. Hungarian Minister Szijjarto rarely misses this exercise, which is as important as the presence inside. The opportunity to redefine the main points of its national position. It appears on two pages, in his little file, which he reread just before, so as not to forget anything. The 'no tie' is wanted. That's the dress code for a Gymnich. For the informal defense, the instructions were stricter. And the more corseted outfits of rigor. (© NGV / B2)
Meal time arrives. For those who have time – journalists or members of delegations – the Slovenian presidency has reserved a small haven of peace for them. A restaurant on an island 10 minutes walk from the conference room. An ideal time to get to know each other, chat with each other... or just take a breather. The photo is taken from afar on purpose to preserve the anonymity of the soldiers, advisers, members of the administration present. An essential staff to hold the road on an informal, pass notes if necessary, prepare arguments. (© NGV / B2)
Small councils are formed. It is the job of a spokesperson who takes 'his' journalists to give them the latest information or the version defended by his minister. Between 'speak true' and 'spin', everything is possible. Usually it's in a room, with chairs. The informal allows for a more relaxed attitude. The group here is particularly large: it includes German-speaking journalists. (© NGV / B2)
Another atmosphere for the French briefing. Apart from AFP (English-speaking and German-speaking branch) and B2, no French journalist saw fit to make the trip, while Polish and Hungarian television, for example, were there... So the French diplomat at COPS, C. Raulin, made a briefing by telephone, on a Zoom type system, for the journalists who remained in their household. A process that has become so common during the Covid-19 crisis that it has become part of our habits. Advantage: you can do it from almost anywhere. Our diplomat has chosen a quiet corner away from other conversations. What could be better than the now more common group photo podium. (© NGV / B2)
The liaison officers at rest. Indispensable part of the device. Young students in political science or international relations who follow the minister step by step if he has to move from one point or another to the meeting, and provide liaison (© NGV / B2)
It's time to leave. And a final sunbath in the form of a well-deserved rest, standing, for Ann Linde, the Swede (© NGV / B2)
It's time to say goodbye. Between the (young) Slovenian Anze Logar and the (senior) High Representative Josep Borrel, the last to leave. The complicity is not feigned. The current seems to be going well. And yet they are located on very opposite political sides. The magic of European informals... (© NGV / B2)
The ballet of cars carrying ministers away is a precious art. The number of cars depends on the size of the delegation. Safety depends on the personality on board. The German Heiko Maas is entitled to preferential treatment, with a security vehicle driving at his height, ready to dismiss any intruder. (© NGV / B2)

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).