An EU official described the mood at the Brexit summit as “very serious”.
But that did not stop a Czech official joking about the decidedly un-English dinner menu, unless you count the strawberries for dessert.
“No beans in tomato sauce nor pudding for the dinner tonight,” tweeted Tomas Prouza., the Czech State Secretary for European Affairs.
Despite the mouth-watering quail and green bean salad, followed by poached veal tenderloin with seasonal baby vegetables, the dinner discussion theme could easily have given the leaders indigestion.
British Prime Minister David Cameron had to brief them on the EU in-out referendum that went so disastrously wrong for him.
An EU official close to the talks said the other 27 wanted to hear his “explanation of the situation in the UK that led to the vote” and his “timeline” now for the tortuous process of pulling out of the EU.
‘Like a wake’
At least the seating arrangement did not risk any further diplomatic awkwardness.
Traditionally the leaders sit in order of rotating EU presidency. Each country gets to manage EU affairs for six months, though the presidency powers are quite limited.
So that was the easy part. Mr Cameron (UK presidency July-December 2017) sat between his counterparts from Malta (Joseph Muscat) and Estonia (Taavi Roivas).
Mr Roivas tweeted that the atmosphere was “sad but constructive”.
And Mr Muscat likewise sounded quite emotional, telling Sky News that it felt like “a wake – we have lost a member of our family”.
Of course, now a big question mark hangs over that UK presidency in 2017, as the EU official admitted. Yet another issue that calls for clarification. By then the Brexit machinery is likely to be grinding away slowly but inexorably.
Going into the summit, video footage showed French President Francois Hollande looking stern but then giving Mr Cameron a friendly tug on the arm.
It was a touching gesture, as if to say: “You naughty boy – ah well, you’ll get over it.”
Charting new course
After the market turmoil of the past few days, with the pound plunging to a 31-year low against the dollar and billions wiped off share values, there was pressure on the UK to trigger the withdrawal procedure, that is, to invoke the EU’s Article 50.
The markets, businesses and EU institutions all crave certainty and stability.
But Mr Cameron made it clear before the summit that his successor would have to pull the Brexit trigger. He plans to quit as prime minister by October at the latest. So there was no expectation that he would set the ball rolling here.
For the first time, the UK is excluded from European Council talks on Wednesday, when the 27 – not 28 – leaders meet.
That will be a preliminary discussion about the changed world of 27 member states and their future strategy.
The EU official said a summit in the Slovak capital Bratislava in September would put some flesh on the bones, when the leaders would consider in more detail “how as 27 we can perform better, respond to people’s demands”.
He also made it clear that Bratislava would be a welcome change from Brussels – perhaps a symbolic choice.
‘Racism of 1930s’
A spate of racist incidents in the UK since the Brexit vote has caused widespread alarm. Czech minister Tomas Prouza told the BBC that “there needs to be a very strong statement from the UK government” about that.
Poles – the largest community of EU workers in the UK – have been abused in some of the attacks.
Mr Prouza said he feared the referendum had “opened a can of worms – this atmosphere reminds us of the 1930s”.
“We thought we had buried this 70 years ago,” he added.
The Visegrad Group – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – agree that freedom of movement must remain a condition for being in the EU single market. So they will be tough negotiators if the UK seeks a free trade deal with the EU.
“It’s four freedoms or no freedoms,” Mr Prouza said, referring to the EU’s free movement of goods, services, people and capital.-BBC