It may have been billed as the dinner that will decide the fate of Brexit, but on the half-frozen and almost wholly deserted streets of Brussels’ windswept European quarter there were few who seemed to know, and even fewer who cared.
“Are they really?” asked Emma Delprez, 37, a PR consultant, informed that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, were due to meet later in a do-or-die attempt to break the impasse.
“I had no idea. I’ve kind of given up following it, to be honest. It seems to have been going on for ever. I don’t understand the ins and outs of it but the English do seem to be causing a lot of trouble. I hope whatever they get is worth it.”
Wrapped in a quilted jacket, scarf and gloves on his way to pick up a panini on the Rue Archimède, Dimitri Vermeulen, 48, a corporate lawyer, was more dismissive still. “I’ve got no clue what will come out of it,” he said.
“The Brits don’t know what they want – or at least they do, but they also know it’s not possible, and that the alternative will be a disaster. So it’s not surprising they’re finding it hard to make up their minds. But really, I’ve lost patience with Brexit.”
Behind him, the lights of the Berlaymont, the 13-storey steel, glass and concrete headquarters of the commission where Johnson and Von der Leyen are to dine, were largely dimmed: as with all the other European buildings in this corner of Brussels, staff have mainly been working from home since March.
The cafes and restaurants of the surrounding streets, usually filled with multilingual chatter, were closed bar the odd optimistic sign insisting “Open for takeaways”. It was 2C, and the wind whistling through the office blocks of the Schumann roundabout made the few people who were out reluctant to stop.
It felt a suitably desolate backdrop to the high-stakes encounter that, more than four years after Britain voted to leave the bloc, may finally decide whether it does so with a deal regulating the future trading relations with its largest partner.
“Actually, I don’t even know whether it will do that,” said a tall Dane working for “a part of the EU” so unwilling to be further identified. “It’s all theatre, isn’t it? Or is for Johnson, anyway. He has to show he’s taken the fight to the enemy, that he’s battled for Britain to the bitter end. That’s who he is.”
But what no one yet knows, the Dane said, rubbing his gloved hands and stamping his feet, was whether “it’s theatre aimed at dressing up a great British climbdown as some kind of victory, or allowing him to pretend the talks’ failure is all Europe’s fault. And I suspect we won’t know that straight away.”
Analysts warn the whole evening may be a damp squib. As commission president, they point out, Von der Leyen cannot cross EU red lines drawn up by member states and laid out in Michel Barnier’s mandate – the limits of which the EU’s chief negotiator, who sees “only a very slim chance” of a deal, has now reached.
The best that can happen, observers argue, is that Johnson can present his case to Von der Leyen, who will then pass it on to the European council, the heads of state and government whose meeting this week would really far prefer to discuss post-Covid recovery plans and Hungary and Poland’s threat to the EU budget than Brexit.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said she does not expect the latest Brexit crisis to be resolved on Wednesday night, and few expect Johnson to declare deal or no deal quite yet. Talks between the two negotiating teams could resume on Friday.
In the children’s playground on the Square Ambiorix, a couple of hundred metres from the Berlaymont, Claire Martens, 31, was pushing her small son – face barely visible beneath an oversized woollen hat – on the swings.
“I’m past caring,” she said. “I think it’s very sad, but it’s gone on for long enough now. If they want to really go off all on their own they should do it. See what good it does them. They never really belonged in the first place, did they?”