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Backstage at Brexit summit: Huddles, deals, delicate dance

BRUSSELS (AP) — Leaving the European Union has turned out to be much harder than British Prime Minister Theresa May bargained for — she can't even leave Wednesday's emergency summit in Brussels until the bloc's 27 other leaders decide what do to with her confused country.

A daylong diplomatic ballet is playing out in the European Quarter of Brussels, culminating in a closed-door dinner with fine wines and an elaborate menu at which presidents and prime ministers will talk for hours and hours until no one disagrees anymore. And only then will May find out their Brexit decision.

It wasn't immediately clear what the food options will be on the carte du jour. Whatever they are, it's sure to be a feast. And in very European fashion, EU leaders (minus May since she isn't invited to the dinner party) will each have their turn to talk and talk and talk in between bites and sips until they reach a consensus — there isn't a formal vote — on whether to grant the U.K. an extension and for how long. The working dinner is expected to drag into the early hours of Thursday.

But first, the Dutch prime minister is playing messenger between ally May and harder-line EU leaders. The French and German leaders are having their own huddle. A mini-club of North Sea countries is gathering elsewhere.

It is all part of the backdoor politicking that's the only way the EU can ever come to a consensus. It's baffling to outsiders — but the EU has elevated it into an art. Everyone's got their own interests to defend, but at the end of the day, they have to all agree on one answer: The EU leaders will either let her delay Brexit until June, or force her to delay it longer — or tell her "good riddance" and let Britain risk tumbling out of the bloc this week without any future plan.

May is already being treated like an outcast: On the official summit brochure showing the photos of the leaders, she's relegated to the level of "Guest." May will give a speech to the 27 other EU leaders pleading for a delay, but then has to leave the room, and wait for them to make a decision. And wait.

At the last Brexit summit two weeks ago, May spoke for close to two hours to convince EU leaders her plans were making headway in the U.K. parliament. After she left the room, EU leaders estimated her chances to get it past the House of Commons at between 5% and 10%. Some said even that was generous.

She then waited four hours in a Brussels government suite before the other leaders finally agreed to grant her a brief Brexit delay. Some of Wednesday's summit drama began well before European Council President Donald Tusk officially opens the evening meeting in the multicolored main room in the Europa building, an architectural gem looking like a Grecian urn sitting in a glass box.

Earlier in the day, Belgium hosted six other nations close to the U.K. — Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland and Denmark — at the neoclassical Egmont Palace across town, amid mountains of marble and gilded chandeliers, to plot strategy.

But not everyone liked this idea. Rumors quickly surfaced that the special "mini-summit" was a plot to set out tough terms for Britain's new extension and put the other EU leaders before a fait-accompli. Quickly diplomats had to play down the meeting, saying it was just to "coordinate" plans in case of a no-deal.

It's all in a day's work for the EU, where the fate of nations can hang in the balance at such summits. When Greece was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in 2015, summits could literally last for days, leaving leaders to hang around while key players were having intense eye-to-eyes. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras famously ditched his tie to show his left-wing defiance.

Sometimes they can get to be just too much. At a 2016 summit when Britain was yet again the troublemaker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel walked out the building went to a French fry shack close by, for a healthy dose of the Belgian delight.

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