* EU leaders meet for their 25th summit in three years
* Negotiations over the 7-year budget could last days
* Leaders, diplomats, advisers increasingly frustrated
* Evidence shows decision-making weakens with tiredness
By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS, Nov 22 The European Union may have won
the Nobel Peace Prize this year, but to many EU leaders,
officials, diplomats and even journalists, it can feel more like
a torture chamber.
Increasingly, Europe is governed at night by leaders in an
advanced state of exhaustion, disregarding scientific evidence
that this can lead to bad decisions, or non-decisions.
Over the past three years, the EU has held 25 summits to try
to tackle its debt crisis and related economic turmoil, with few
of those meetings ending before 3 or 4 a.m. -- usually after 12
hours or more of near-fruitless negotiation.
Add to that more than 40 finance ministers' meetings -- the
most recent of which ended at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, again without
agreement -- and it is easy to see how a set of institutions
designed to foster peace and stability in Europe can end up
delivering frustration, angst and head-numbing pain.
"I'll put it this way: I woke up at 5 a.m. or 5.30 a.m.
yesterday and we ended in the morning around 4 a.m.," Slovak
Prime Minister Robert Fico complained after the last, largely
unsuccessful summit in October.
"This is how all of us operate, we adopt very serious
decisions under pressure," he said, referring to the EU's
increasingly weary heads of state and government.
The EU's 27 leaders gathered for another summit on Thursday
and Friday, this time to try to hammer out an agreement on
around 1 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) of spending over the
next seven years.
It promises to be a bruising clash of national interests
rather than the model of reconciliation and harmony commended by
the Nobel committee, although it will still be "jaw, jaw" rather
than "war, war".
Gatherings to negotiate the long-term budget only happen
every 6 or 7 years and are notorious for running over deadline
and for being extremely hard-nosed and ill-tempered affairs.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described his
experience of it in 2005 as the most difficult negotiation he
handled while in office -- tougher even than the 1998 Northern
Ireland peace talks that led to the Good Friday agreement.
Already EU officials are warning that these budget talks
could run into Saturday and Sunday -- making it what is known in
diplomatic circles as a "four-shirt" summit.
Staff at the European Council in Brussels, where EU leaders
meet, have been told to be ready to work into Saturday at least.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has cleared his schedule
for the entire weekend, a spokesman said. French President
Francois Hollande has done the same.
Journalists -- around 1,500 of whom are accredited to cover
the meeting -- took up residence in the vast glass and steel
entrance hall on Thursday morning and will stay encamped there
until a deal is done, or negotiations break down.
The effect on the EU's public image among its 500 million
citizens is unedifying.
"It's not exactly glamorous and some would say it's
downright torture," said one EU diplomat, a veteran of at least
30 EU summits. "Everyone gets extremely fed up."
Sweden has organised extra bedding for its diplomats to take
a rest in their delegation room if necessary.
The larger issue, though, is whether the pressure-cooker
atmosphere and endlessly drawn-out negotiating schedule is
conducive to good decision-making.
Everyone knows that drivers should take a rest after four or
five hours at the wheel to avoid accidents. Shouldn't the
leaders of nation states take the same precaution lest they take
a bad decision that might run their country off the road?
A study published by three academics in the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences in the United States last year
showed that a judge's willingness to grant parole can depend to
a large extent on how tired he or she is and when they last ate.
The study examined more than 1,000 parole decisions made by
experienced judges over a 10-month period. It found that the
more decisions judges have to make, the more difficult it
becomes to stay consistent -- they get decision fatigue.
"The theory determines that decision-making capacity is a
limited resource, and when many decisions are made in sequence,
the mental capacity diminishes," Professor Shai Danziger of
Ben-Gurion University, one of the authors, said at the time.
That could be a lesson for EU leaders and the political
advisers, diplomats and hangers-on who have to help them make
the right decisions time and again for days in a row.
One experienced EU ambassador, a veteran of multiple foreign
postings in high-pressure places, said a lesson could be drawn
from how Israel handles Middle East talks.
When the Oslo peace accords were being negotiated with the
Palestinians in the mid-1990s, Israel would change its
negotiating team every six hours or so to avoid fatigue and the
risk of mistakes.
"No one can negotiate at full capacity for more than six
hours at a time, you just can't concentrate that long," the
ambassador said. "They wanted to make sure they had a fresh team
that was at its sharpest."
China has employed similar tactics in business and trade
negotiations, officials say.
By contrast, EU leaders will have at least 12 straight hours
of negotiation on each of the next two days and more if the
meeting drags on into the weekend.
And if that isn't enough, there's another meeting of finance
ministers starting on Monday evening.