A the latest Gymnich meeting in Berlin, the focus was on relations with Turkey and Russia, the situation in Belarus and the EU’s strategic response to COVID-19. The meeting is always hosted by the minister of foreign affairs of the state holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU - in this case Heiko Maas - and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell
The first Gymnich meeting was held on the weekend of 20 April 1974 at the request of then-German Minister for Foreign Affairs Walter Scheel. Faced with the oil crisis, the Vietnam War and the Watergate Affair, European ministers of foreign affairs were “so concerned that they came together for an informal, urgent meeting at a German palace called Schloss Gymnich,” explained Chris Patten, who went on to become European Commissioner for External Relations.
Schloss Gymnich in Erftstadt near Bonn still lends its name to the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs that has taken place every six months since that first meeting. For many centuries, the 14th century palace was owned by the Gynmich family, members of the Rhineland nobility. For many years it was used as the German Government's guest house.
On 5 March 1988, former German Minister for Foreign Affairs Hans-Dietrich Genscher (right) hosted a meeting in Konstanz. The photo of Genscher with his Danish counterpart Uffe Ellemann-Jensen underscores the informal nature of a Gymnich meeting. Meetings are generally held over the weekend, and as one Federal Foreign Office spokesperson once put it, “that means no ties and as few civil servants as possible”.
At Gymnich meetings, there are traditionally only a few items on the agenda so that they can be discussed in depth. Generally there are no conclusions or closing statements. This was the case at the Meeting of European Foreign Affairs Ministers hosted by German Foreign Minister Klaus Klinkel (front row, fifth from left) on 10-11 September 1994, in Bansin on the island of Usedom. It was the first meeting of its kind in a reunified Germany.
The last meeting to be held in Germany took place in March 2007. The then Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (at right), invited EU foreign affairs ministers to Bremen. The cordial atmosphere is well illustrated in this photo with the then EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana.
In 2020, Germany again holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union - during an exceptional period. The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences are not just the predominant political issue. The pandemic also makes for meetings with distancing and a very unusual “Gymnich family photo” in the atrium of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. Nevertheless, the informal discussions were intensive and will leave their mark on the EU’s foreign policy.