BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In a normal year, Europe’s heads of state might meet five or six times at most -- at EU or G20 summits or other pow-wows of the powerful. Those that don’t get along don’t have to worry: they only have to make small talk for a few hours.
But the last two years haven’t been normal for the leaders of the European Union. The deepening sovereign debt crisis is threatening to tear their monetary union apart and the stresses and strains of dealing with it are clearly starting to show.
Since the beginning of 2010, when the crisis began, at least 17 summits and countless bilateral meetings have been held as they try to solve spiraling problems that have infected Greece, Ireland and Portugal and threaten Spain, Italy and potentially France, the region’s second largest economy.
Some of the gatherings have lasted for 20 hours or more, spread over two days, with the leaders closeted on the upper floors of the brown marble Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, locked in heated and sometimes angry debate.
Those that don’t get along can no longer hide it. The personality conflicts are bubbling to the surface, with diplomatic spats and disagreements growing ever more public, complicating efforts to resolve an already complex situation.
On Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron, who weeks ago flew to Libya together to declare victory in the campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, argued bitterly for more than an hour over the best way of combating the crisis, diplomats present during the discussion said.
At one point, one of the diplomats said, Cameron made fun of Sarkozy, saying that when they had gone to Libya, the microphones on a podium from where they spoke were barely above his waist -- a dig at Sarkozy’s relatively short height.
Later, Sarkozy responded angrily to suggestions from Britain, which is not a member of the euro zone, about what the currency union should be doing to resolve its problems.
“We are sick of you criticizing us and telling us what to do,” said Sarkozy. “You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”
The French president was equally irate with Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt, whose country is also not in the euro, telling him he wasn’t in a position to lecture until Sweden met its obligations and joined the currency union.
For all the leaders, particularly those from countries that have had to take bailouts from the EU and IMF, the past two years have heaped untold strain on their shoulders.
Governments in Portugal and Ireland have already collapsed, Spain’s prime minister is standing down at the next election in November and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is hanging on to power by a thread. Other governments are on the rocks.
Italy’s premier, Silvio Berlusconi, faces two corruption and tax fraud trials, and another case in which he is accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute, and is now under pressure to deliver much deeper economic reforms to help prevent Italy going the way of Greece and taking a bailout.
Asked at a joint news conference on Sunday whether they trusted Berlusconi to do the right thing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy all but jeered at the Italian leader, smirking to each other before answering the question.
“We have confidence in the sense of responsibility of the Italian authorities all together: political, financial and economic,” said Sarkozy, providing only half an answer. “It was a meeting among friends,” said Merkel, less than convincingly.
Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister, has faced the ignominy of effectively being hauled in by other leaders and the unelected president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to be told how to run his country better.
For Van Rompuy, who started his job just as the crisis began, and for Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission and another key figure in the crisis-fighting effort, the stress and strain is no less severe.
Staffers describe both as being drained, even if publicly they put on a positive face.
“It’s never-ending for both of them,” said one diplomat who has liaised with both during the crisis.
“Whether its organizing or chairing the summits, and dealing with the egos around the table, or making sure that they say the right thing to the press, or send the right message to markets, it’s 24/7. It takes its toll.”
Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and the head of the euro zone finance ministers, has talked privately about how exhausting the past two years have been, telling colleagues about the need to get fit and smoke less.
Perhaps only Finland’s prime minister, Jyrki Katainen, who turned 40 earlier this month, manages to look as if the crisis is not unduly stressing him -- but that may be because he often has a relaxing sauna before meetings, aides suggest.
On Wednesday, all 27 leaders gathered again for a summit they hope will turn a corner in the crisis. Few would bet that will be the case. Chances are the stress and strain will begin all over again on Thursday, and continue the day after.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Robin Emmott; Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Janet McBride