ATHENS (Reuters) - In the small hours of Thursday, George Papandreou thanked his aides for helping clinch a second bailout deal for debt-ridden Greece, and admitted the strain had almost killed one of them.
“Some were under such pressure that they needed medical attention. I see George Zanias, thankfully with us. But George Glynos was unable to join us after suffering a heart attack,” Papandreou told a news conference in Brussels after an 11-hour EU summit.
Like many of their EU counterparts, Greek officials have worked punishing hours under enormous stress for months. The debt crisis has taken its toll not only on their country and the euro, but on their health.
Government officials said Greece’s chief economic adviser, Zanias, developed very high blood pressure during Sunday’s summit and was ordered to stay in his room all day Monday. Papandreou’s aide Glynos suffered a heart attack in Athens after Sunday’s summit and missed Wednesday’s meeting.
“Your body revolts. You go from a plane to meeting after meeting with little sleep, you drink too much coffee and you are forced to eat bad food. It’s an unnatural life and there comes a point when we’ll all pay for it,” said a Greek Finance Ministry official who did not want to be named.
While leaders dined on giant shrimp with aubergines followed by roast turbot and a trio of sorbets, for the delegations, usually waiting anxiously to be briefed on a different floor, the dining is not as exciting.
“The food is terrible. You eat sandwiches and junk food all day. I got really sick from it Sunday,” said one Greek delegate who declined to be named.
But even after a meal of roast turbot, the tension is just as high for the leaders meeting in a vast, windowless conference room in the upper reaches of the European Council’s headquarters in Brussels.
They entered the building at around 5 p.m. Wednesday, and were still bargaining over a deal to rescue the euro zone from its debt crisis almost 11 hours later.
At around 2 a.m., when negotiations were at their peak, a team of around 15 medics gathered in the lobby of the brown marble-fronted Justus Lipsius building, although the reason was not immediately clear.
EU officials said the talks were extremely intense, with hard-nosed negotiation over very specific numbers before leaders would agree on the outline of a plan to reduce Greek debt and convince banks to take losses.
They knew their decisions had to reassure edgy financial markets, but could also cause big losses for financial institutions and perhaps lead to the nationalization of Greek banks.
One senior EU official said the talks progressed extremely slowly.
In the early hours of Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the IMF’s Christine Lagarde entered into direct negotiations with representatives of private sector banks and insurers to persuade them voluntarily to accept heavy losses on Greek debt.
At one point, euro zone negotiators said it might be necessary to force the banks and insurers to take losses if they didn’t accept at least a 50 percent loss on their investments — a move that would constitute an immediate default on Greek debt, with unpredictable fallout for Greece and the European economy.
Such a threat is likely to have caused enormous stress to the Greek team, which repeatedly said ahead of the summit that it wanted to do everything to avoid defaulting on its 210 billion euros of private sector debt.
“It is hugely tiring. You have to stay mentally focused, and it helps to be physically fit. You go to bed at maybe two in the morning and are up early. There’s a huge amount of information you have to be able to process,” said Michael Denison, special adviser to David Miliband when he was Britain’s foreign secretary, and now research director for the London-based consultancy Control Risks.
EU summits are frequently high-pressure events. The leaders gather on the restricted upper floors of the building and barely move from the negotiating room until agreements are reached.
“It’s a very unhealthy room, with no fresh air, and you don’t know if it’s day or night outside,” the Greek delegate said. “During 11 hours of talks, the leaders took two half-hour breaks — and that was not to rest, but to brief delegations.”
The leaders usually sit around a vast oval table in the low-ceilinged wood-paneled room. Behind them is a separate table for aides and advisers, and on one side of the room a wall of glass booths contains the interpreters.
Summits are frequently heated and exhausting, with diplomats telling of heads of state who lose their temper or even fall asleep at critical moments. Not infrequently, they may go to change a shirt or freshen up when the strain begins to show.
One official half-jokingly said that supplies of fresh bottles of water to the meeting room are sometimes halted in order to add extra pressure on the negotiators to wrap it up.
“Part of the trick is to be able to move on from a topic immediately once a decision has been made,” Denison said.
“But, however you do it, you need ministers who can keep the pace at these kind of meetings.”
Additional reporting by Luke Baker and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Peter Apps in London; Editing by Kevin Liffey