In February 2023, we already looked at the underestimated role of Council working groups and their members, the national diplomats at EU level (short: attachés). We elaborated on the need to first get a picture, away from the ministers and the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper), of which issues and challenges are already being negotiated and “pre-cooked” at working group level and before the trialogue – because these are ultimately about 70 percent of all decisions in the Council of Ministers.

Building on the structural strands of action and decision-making, we would now like to show why it is also important to consider the social dynamics among Member States in Council working groups, too. Empirical observations[1] illustrate that the often-used rhetoric of “permanent traitors” instead of “permanent representatives” in Brussels does have some basis.

The European Union is not only the largest regional bloc in economic terms. It is among the most institutionalised arenas of intergovernmental cooperation and thus has one of the densest forms of diplomatic interaction. The decision-making of Council working groups is a case in point, and is often described as a process of hard bargaining among Member States. But behind the scenes, a socialisation process among attachés mitigates – and sometimes prevents – this “hard bargaining” for national positions.

Attachés posted to Brussels operate in a tension between two social contexts: the national and the European. They do not act exclusively within the framework of the Council of Ministers, but within a normative framework that results from formal institutionalised and informal channels:

  • Regular working group meetings in the Council once or twice a week (9am-6pm);
  • Informal meetings with the Council Presidency, bilateral meetings to coordinate and convince positions or within a group of like-minded Member States[2];
  • Networks of formal and informal communication; these range from contact by phone and mailing lists set up for the working groups to COREU messages[3] or Whats-App group chats;
  • Joint meetings on private occasions, because the working group atmosphere is often very familiar and friendly: group (‘family’) photos are taken at the end of presidencies, former working group members keep in touch, visit each other, inform each other about personal matters and concerns.

Through routine, mutual exchanges, the attachés form a “social unit” and develop a strong sense of community.

In the interviews, some of the attachés went so far as to compare what are actually purely diplomatic relations – i.e., defending their country’s position in the best possible way – to the dynamics of a school class: “You have your classmates and you are all together. Then there are some who are more friends with each other and others who are less so. And there are small groups that go to parties together. That’s something very natural for us. Our children go to the same kindergartens and schools. We are friends, we know each other’s families, and we often visit each other.”

This makes it easier for them to take into account the views of other Member States instead of exclusively following instructions from the capital. No one wants to be “blamed” for a failure of the negotiations, the attachés say: “Because those who vote against something are blamed by everyone for the fact that no agreement could be found.”

Internal solidarity within the group is seen by the attachés of the ‘public health’ working group as key to speeding up agreements in legislative processes. It should be emphasised, however, that this solidarity arises mainly among like-minded Member States. The close relations between the larger Member States, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, were consistently highlighted.

Diplomats go „native” over time by identifying with their host country, which can lead to tensions with the capital and is one of the reasons for the rotation system. Attachés in the working groups, however, differ from diplomats in national embassies in that they are seconded not by foreign ministries but by the national specialised ministries, so that some attachés (examples cited: Austria and Poland) spend up to 15 years in Brussels.

Such socialisation can however also be strategically justified from at least two logics. The prevailing system of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV[4]) is often not entirely understood in capitals. Ministries at home tend to formulate rigid positions without taking into account the QMV logic, which at the end of the day makes it easier for attachés to soften their instructions from the capitals.

An example can be the rejection of the inclusion of gender perspectives in a legislative text: If a group (‘bloc’) of Member States that strongly supports gender consideration has a majority, it not only wins the vote, but may avoid approaching the “dissenter” in next negotiations. As one of the attachés confirmed, “Even if we don’t like [gender considerations], voting against it means, first, that we have lost, and second, that we will not be a partner in the future discussions.”

However, the motivation to follow social pressure also stems from the calculation to maintain or improve individual recognition within the group in the long term. As one of the diplomats pointed out, “We are paid to make friends here.” An attaché will have a hard time finding allies in discussions if there is a lack of good relations with colleagues from other Member States.

The close cooperation, sense of community, and internal solidarity among attachés help to expedite agreements in specific policy areas, often to the detriment of their own instructions. It is important to note, however, that these assessments come primarily from interviews with the Council’s ‘public health’ working group and are thus not generalisable.

The attachés themselves say that ‘public health’ is an issue area that is strongly influenced by shared, more altruistic values, such as fighting cancer or harm from drug use. Their goal is to “create a better Europe for health” and “protect the health of European citizens.” In policy areas where the focus is also on financial gain, such as intellectual property, the “we-feeling” and thus the influence on cooperation and weakening of national positions is probably less pronounced.

Moreover, the subject area of health is the competence of the Member States. Thus, a significant part of the day-to-day practice of health attachés is to keep the Commission in check; for example, during the pandemic, when the Commission was able to use the urgency to extend its influence in a policy area for which it is not legally responsible. Negotiations in this policy area are thus characterised more by an “us versus them” attitude rather than by disagreement among the Member State representatives themselves.

Summary and recommendation

The previous look at the structure and decision-making levels in the Council of Ministers has shown: it is advisable to get an idea of what issues and challenges are already being worked out at the working group level in order to make one’s own point of view heard. This is especially true in light of the fact that EU Member State attachés are driven by a political obligation to collaborate and find solutions due to their daily interactions, which also affects their role as representatives and advisors as well as national negotiators on legislative proposals. Looking behind the scenes and considering the informal relationships and coordination within the Council’s working group can further benefit efforts to position oneself within the ministerial structure – for example, by familiarising oneself with the flexibility and history of attachés to deviate from national instructions, or by considering the extent to which one’s concerns can be helpful not only to Germany but also to partner countries in this area. Good relations and reflexive coordination can be catalysts for an attaché being more inclined to advance the concern within the working group, especially along like-minded Member States.

[1] The results presented here are based on expert interviews conducted in Brussels with members of the EU Council working group on ‘public health’.

[2] For example, Nordic and Baltic health ministers regularly hold informal meetings with their ambassadors and attachés to make initial coordinations.

[3] COREU stands for “COuncil REgister of the European Union” and serves as an official channel for the exchange of information and news between the EU Member States and the various EU institutions, especially when it comes to issues of high sensitivity and security.

[4] To achieve a qualified majority, 55 percent of EU Member States representing at least 65 percent of the total EU population must vote in favour.