This Blog Is Closing

I regret to have to inform you readers that this blog will close, and that this is my final post.

The reason is that I will move to Sweden at the turn of the month for personal reasons. (No, nobody’s got sick, I haven’t lost my job, or anything like that). But while I will continue to cover EU related issues for Foodwire, I will not be present in the capital of Europe on any regular basis from July 2008 on.

Thank you to all of you who have read and even commented; it’s been a pleasant experience seeing how much response there has been after all – which surprised me, because the blogosphere is one crammed place in the virtual universe, and this blog started mainly as an experiment.

I will leave this blog up for some time, for any of you who would like some further reference reading, but eventually it will probably either be wiped or completely revamped. We will see what happens.

Once again, thank you all for your interest in my thoughts here. Hope we will see each other again soon.

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Winding Down

The EU Summit that starts today will probably be the beginning of a general wind down period for the EU as a whole, a bit differently than the EU leaders had expected.

Everyone had already started talking about this period after the August break – when all EU work grinds to a halt – as the general run-up to the year 2009, when both a new EU Parliament and a new EU Commission is to be selected. Logically, neither body would have any interest in starting any new huge undertakings as they would not know whether or not they would be able to finish them.

Some Commissioners will likely re-appear. Chairman José Manuel Barroso, for example, makes little secret of his wish to be re-appointed, and seems to have enough political support from e.g. Germany to see a second term in office. And Ms Androulla Vasiliou is so new on the job that she has little time to mess things up, at least, enough to be removed.

Others will certainly not. Vice president Margot Wallström, for instance, has made it clear that she is not seeking re-election. That is to all intents and purposes a preventive statement in order to save her the embarrassment of being ousted, not because she is doing a poor job – on the contrary, she is generally held in high esteem – but because she is a Social Democrat. So was Sweden’s only other Commissioner to date, Anita Gradin. But the current Swedish government is not. They will be little inclined, to say the least, to continue nominating representatives of their main political arch rivals, especially since they won the last election with promises including a reform of the nomination process to public top jobs, where Social Democrats – who have held governmental power for all but eleven of the last 76 years – for some reason have had a notorious habit of being appointed.

I’d be rather surprised if they didn’t put Carl Bildt in there instead, but I’ve been wrong before.

However, apart from that general slowdown, the current Summit will have to throw all plans to address pressing current issues such as galloping food and oil prices out the window, and instead embark on another endless crisis management tour in the wake of Ireland’s no to the Lisbon Treaty.

Another deadlock, from which there is no known escape, just before the slowdown time, while interest rates are creeping upwards, economy downwards, and stagflation is looming around the corner. Not to mention what to do with the EU’s ambitious climate targets, which might help delay global warming for a few years (until China’s and India’s emissions have made up for the balance), but will eat into the world’s already scarce food resources and continue to trigger famine, especially in poor countries. And I haven’t even started with the need to do something about the EU’s gigantic Common Agriculture Policy in order to make it help feed us all instead of just making matters worse.

This is when Brussels would have needed to take some tough decisions. But, sorry to say, don’t hold your breath.

Fishy

I just read that the EU is sending another EUR 5 million to Mauritania and several other countries in West Africa, to help against starvation. There is an ongoing shortage of food in the area, which is why the EU has already spent EUR 25 million on aid there.

However, the government of Mauritaina, as you may remember, recently sold its fishing rights in its waters – to the EU.

That means that the EU is first sending fishing boats – from the Baltic, of all places – to trawl up all the Mauritanian fish, and then sends financial aid to the same area because the Mauritanians – surprise, surprise – have nothing to eat.

Am I the only one seeing somethng fishy with this picture?

Belgian Crisis: Into The Fridge

Flemish and French-speaking Belgians alike are celebrating a half victory and bemoaning a half defeat today, as the never-ending issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency (BHV) has strewn salt into the country’s wounds once again.

The Flemings are happy to have been able to schedule the issue for a parliamentary vote, something that has been four decades in the making. The French-speakers, on the other hand, have blocked the issue from moving forward for 120 days, by having the French-speaking community’s bodo Cocof invoking the “emergency brake” clause that enables either side of the divided country to put controversial decisions “in the fridge”, as Flemish media describes it, for a cooling-off period of four months, should one side feel trampled by the other.

Apparently, this is only the second time that this Belgian peculiarity has evenr been used – the first was only some months ago, over the same issue by the way.

The date July 15 has previously been mentioned as a deadline to resolve the issue, but with divisions as deep as ever before, few believe that this will be accomplished.

As a foreigner, I frankly can’t understand why it is so aggressively difficult to reach an agreement and instead take on more burning issues, such as improving welfare, housing, roads, reforming taxes, improving public sector efficiency, fighting against nepotism and corruption, and last but not least: shoving the entire bureaucracy surrounding starting a company into the waste-paper basket, and replacing it with a quick and easy way to enable entrepreneurs and people with more good ideas than pen-pushing skills to start companies and thus help to do something about unemployment.

But that’s just me.

May Day

Today is the National Day of the European Union.

In case you won’t notice in any other way.

A Short Truth

“Sorry to say, it isn’t the dictatorship in Burma that has blown away”.

–Quote from the blog of Enn Kokk

Belgian Crisis: Bet On The Split

While the Belgian government is today wriggling over the constituency issue of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) which once again might throw the country into a government-less limbo and renewd chaos, you can play an online dead pool game to predict when Belgium will cease to exist. The prize: your weight in Belgian French Fries.

“The symptoms are pointing towards a terminal disease”, unknown pranksters write as they invite you to bet on when Belgium will die. You can place your bet by clicking here: http://www.wanneergaatbelgiedood.be/

The organisers promise to give the winning prediction his/her weight in frites, the Belgian invention that has travelled the world under the name of French fries; yet another example of how this country has failed to gain a profile of its own. (The world apart from the UK, that is, where Belgian French fries are called ‘chips’ and chips are called ‘crisps’, because we love to confuse things, but let’s not get technical now).

Predictions range (as of yet) from today’s date, May 8, to July 1, 2013. “Flanders first!! then the frites…!” writes Mathias, who put that date down, while “Better late than never” is the verdict from Eric de Bel, who anticipates the split at September 17 this year.

I refrain from casting a vote, being an impartial journalist.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government is amking another attempt at forcing a vote in Parliament over the BHV issue. The government is at a 50-50 per cent chance/risk of having to resign shold things not go their way, which would mean that the executive body that was so painfully forged dduring nine months of anguish will have stayed in power for only two months. Since that govermnent almost never happened, and was the end of the road or a lengthy consitutional crisis, the resulting problems may prove too difficult to overcome, and early predictions on the demise of the Belgian state may therefore prove correct after all.

Stranger things have happened.

Belgian Crisis: Deadlock Holiday

Thought the Belgian Crisis was averted with the inauguration of a new government? Think again. The trickiest question of them all yesterday forced a scheduled Parliament session today to be cancelled, to the tune of cries of foul.

Even though the largest parties eventually managed to form a government, some nine months after last year’s elections, the country remains fundamentally divided over the issue over the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency. Not much to squabble about, British readers may wonder, as constituency borders in Britain are redrawn all the time. But in a country so delicately balancing on a knife’s edge between different and diverse interests, the question of how to draw the borders of a simple constituency has become a major issue as a focal point for the tensions that still hold the country in deadlock.

In short, the Flemings want the constituency split, and the French-speakers do not. Flemings argue that its composition gives the Francophones a disproportionate say, which the Francophones unsurprisingly refutes. The Flemings, though, have a verdict from Belgium’s Constitution Court in their favour, saying that the constituency does discriminate against them and must be split. The Francophones continue to obstruct this verdict to this day, which is why it has not been implemented yet. But the same court has said that no new elections can be held until the split is carried out. Ergo: Deadlock.

The new government, a fragile alliance between members who fought against each other during the height of the crisis, has the unenviable task to resolve all this.

The issue was to be debated in the Belgian Parliament’s equivalent of the House of Commons/House of Representatives – the Chamber – on Wednesday (30th April). But that debate has been cancelled since the Speakers of the house cannot agree on how to hold it. Meanwhile, the government says it has no new agreement on the issue to put forward, according to the Belgian magazine Knack.

Of course, the opposition is crying foul, saying that “Parliament is virtually abolished”. “An absolute low point”, raves the Flemish Socialist Party leader Peter Vanvelthoven, and the far-right if not right-wing extremist and separatist Flemish Vlaams Belang is equally outraged.

They will try again next week, after the extended weekend due to the May 1 holiday tomorrow and the extra day off that most businesses are taking during Friday. It remains to see whether the speakers have agreed enough by then to even have the issue discussed – but don’t put your money on it.

By George!

I almost forgot – but today is actually the most forgotten holiday in the British Isles: St. George’s Day, the national day of the English.

Not the British, that is, for the proud nation of the United Kingdom has no national day at all, only the Queen’s official birthday (what nonsense), but the English. Which is only beginning to become known in later years (ugh, that was a nasty sentence, but I’m too tired to rewrite it).

So while the Scots wallow in haggis on Burns Night and the Irish roll in Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day (quarter irish as I am, I grumpily boycotted the latter event this year simply because my schedule on that day prevented me from joining in the said rolling), the English do not even have a Bank Holiday on their national day, which pases most people by unnoticed anyway.

I am currently reading (and much enjoying) Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People, where he points out the irony of the mainland of the former British Empire lacking such a national identity of its own. Mind you, we don’t even have an anthem of our own either, so, for example, whenever England wins the football (soccer) World Championship (ho hum), we have to borrow the national anthem of the whole of Britain, which in turn is little else than a prayer for the salvation of the Queen and has nothing to do with the rest of the country anyway.

But then again, maybe the chronic lack of football success is one of the reasons why those of us who were born in that part of the country find it so difficult to muster an English identity.

We recently discussed this at work, where the ever-present discussion on what to name the various bparts of Britain in news texts reappeared. I tried to point out that most people in, say Devon, Cornwall or Yorkshire would be perfectly happy to be called “British”, while writing “Edinburgh in Britain” would probably be enough to spark a new William Wallace uprising, even though it is technically correct.

And while there is an increasing sense of Englishness in England, the truth is that most English would refer to themselves as British rather than anything else.

Or am I wrong here? What say ye English readers of this blog? Your thoughts on this are most welcome in the Comments section.

Happy St. George’s to you while you think about what to write.

Money Back Guarantee

Believe it or not, but the European Union does actually have a money back guarantee.

I’m not joking. The only catch is that you don’t get your money back if it isn’t working; but only if they haven’t managed to spend all the money you paid them during the last year.

Consequently, the EU is now paying back a total of EUR 1.5bn to its 27 member states, distributed according to the states’ gross national income (GNI). In other words, the most money to the fattest cats in the club, but that’s beside the point.

The full distribution list can be found here.

The EU Commission this year brags that this year’s budget surplus is the smallest ever, insisting that this is evidence of its excellent capacities forplanning and not asking too much in membership fees.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that they’ve been better than ever at wasting our money away this year, and that it’s a failure that they aren’t able to return much more of our money.

I’l leave it to you to decide which version you prefer.

Where Do We BEGIN?

At last, at last, at last! The EU and the Cty of Brussels has decided to give the EU quarters east of the Brussels city centre a facelift, cleaning up the area around, among others, the Berlaymonster (the EU Commission’smain building) and Justus Lipsius (the stone sarcophagus where ministers meet).

For this purpose, they have announced a competition, open for anyone with bright idea on how to liven up this stone desert, choking on the exhaust from the thousands of cars on the two eight-lane highways that plough through the district.

I wrote about this when the idea was presented in September, but here are a few new modest proposals from yours sincerely:

  • Get rid of the traffic.
  • Continue to pull down the old ugly shoeboxes for offices and build something nice instead.
  • Paint the old facades in something else than dirt-grey.
  • Get rid of some of the slum-like buildings from ages past that still litter the district.
  • Shut the lights off along Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat if you are serious about cutting CO2 emissions and setting an example in that work.

and finally…

  • Shock yourselves dramatically, and put in one or two GREEN spaces there for a change

This last item is probably the most important. The Belgian idea of “wildlife” is to plant some grass in a flower pot and put it out on the pavement (sidewalk), but so as not to inflict too much of a wilderness survival trip feeling, there must be 6-7 pubs and ample car parking immediately surrounding it. Consequently, the only green you see downtown are the pharmacies’ signs, and especially this time of the year, you feel dying from chlorophyll deficit. There have been a few new open spaces created when they refurbished the old Berlaymonster, but these have been carefully paved over so as not to offer any unnecessary vegetation, and are in either case wind holes that one quickly hurries across in search for shelter.

But then again, everybody knows that you have to be stark raving mad to become a city planner. So please… take the chance to draw something creative.

When She’s 64

As the European Parliament today votes on whether or not to approve the new EU Commissioner for Health, Androula Vassiliou, I shall take the risk of making myself rather unpopular with her by restating the fact that she is 64 years old.

Innocent as that factoid may seem, it was the source of some outrage from her designated spokesperson when people started to notice that there was no information available about her age anywhere, and reporters started to ask.

“In Greek, in our culture, it is a bit rude to ask for a woman’s age. So if you insist that much, I would suggest that you do some research on Google and you will find the CV of the commissioner and there you can find her exact age,” the EU Commission spokesperson Nina Papadoulaki said according to EUbusiness.com, claiming that she did not know her age herself. (Ms Papadoulaki didn’t know Ms Vassiliou’s age, that is).

Anyway. Mounting pressure on this ever-important issue later forced the Commission to concede that Ms Vassiliou was born on 30th November 1943, the news service reports. Even her Wikipedia article has been updated with this revealing news, I notice.

While I don’t have much time for ageism in our youth-fixated society, I simply marvel at the difficulties the Commission has at even releasing such a trivial bit of information. A woman’s age may be considered a private matter in Cyprus, but Ms Vassiliou is appointed to represent the EU as a whole – not any country – and the question of age wich may or may not shed light on her ability and willingness to fulfill her job duties for years to come is very much relevant to those of us who have to foot the bill for her salary.

Sometimes the Commission seems set to secrecy by default. And then they wonder why public support for the EU is so low.

I Am The Easter Bunny

I thought our Christmas ordeal was a challenging experience in cross-cultural communication, trying to explain to our little children the four incarnations of Santa Claus. Little did I know that I would have to become the Easter Bunny at 7 am on Easter Sunday.

Let’s recap. Our children are of Anglo-Swedish origin, and we live in Belgium. Three cultures to merge already, the latter of which we are still largely ignorant of in spite of a total of six years in this country. Our children, however, spending most of their awake hours in a Flemish school, are not.

I should have remembered last year, when we were hunting little Easter eggs all around our back yard. Another mnemonic came a few days ago in the shape of our dear little old lady neighbour downstairs, a Flemish woman with no children of her own and thus our kids’ surrogate Granny. She called me to her and snuck a large bag of little Easter eggs and candy of the same kind, with the obvious intent of helping us to repeat the act this year.

The thing is, in this part of the world, little children awake on Easter morning (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which day it’s supposed to be) to find their gardens full of hidden chocolate eggs that have to be found. In France, these eggs are said to be spread all over the world from the Vatican’s church bells; in Belgium, for some reason I have yet to unveil, they are all laid by the Easter Bunny.

Problematically enough, however, he is not the only one who does so. Any visit to any commercial outlet of any kind this time of the year reveals that Easter Bunnies must have reproduced like, well, rabbits, because you are met with row after row, aisle after aisle, of one set of Easter eggs and candy more sugar-stuffed and unhealthy than another.

Consequently, we thought ourselves to be good parents to but the kids one large, candy-stuffed Easter egg each on Good Friday, to prevent any possible pining. But when they came home from school, they had already had a visit from the candy-dropping Bunny in their classrooms, and were thus already experiencing blood sugar levels set to saturated and rising. So we thought it good to ration the candy intake, and leave the garden chocolate hunt for Easter Day in the morning. Eager inquiries from the Four-year-old and the Six-year-old, anticipating the hunt, were met with our purportedly initiated explanations that “it’s too early yet, wait for Easter Sunday”.

Talk about making a rod for your own back.

The day before – nay, the night before – I had reason to attend to a lot of important business that kept me up late, late, late into the wee hours. Or early. Going to bed, I calculated when I would have to get up again in order to get us ready for going to Church, and decided that I could at least sleep until 8.30. Wow, almost five hours’ sleep.

How wrong I was. Ten to seven, our two little tots came bouncing into our bed – which only so happens to be the best point for getting a view of our garden – excitedly wanting to see how full of sweets the garden was. You should have seen the look on their faces when all they saw was frozen grass. Disappointment and grief doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Drowsily trying to return to the land of the living, two thoughts fought for attention from the four of my brain cells that had switched on so far

1)      Are these Belgian kiddies my children?

2)      How in the name of Pete do I get away with this?

Luckily enough, necessity is the mother of invention. I sent the kids back to bed with some half-baked explanation that it was so early that the Bunny hadn’t even made it there yet, trying to order them to sleep a little more. That is usually impossible. When the sun is shining at full floodlight strength and they are expecting one of the year’s major events, it’s as easy as drilling a mine shaft with a boiled carrot.

I then remembered that thankfully, there is a corner of our garden that you can’t see from anywhere in the house, as it is concealed behind a large shed.

So I put on a suitably troubled face (which was the one thing this morning that took the least effort), went to my grim-faced little dear ones laying in their beds and told them that I was going outside to take a closer look, just in case.

The thermometer said –0.4 C.

Well, then at least I could wear a winter jacket large enough to conceal the sack of candy from the Secret Hiding Place. Out I went, after first ripping open the little bags that these eggs come in, so as to be able to act quickly once out there.

I felt like someone out of a Biblical parable as I stood there in the garden, spreading little candy eggs like a sowerman. There must be a sermon illustration in all this. Hope the neighbours weren’t watching, but then again, they probably would have nodded in sympathy.

Next, stage two of the Deception: I took a deep breath, rushed inside, and dashed into my kids’ bedroom feigning excitement.

“I found them! I found them! They were in the corner! Come and have a look!”

Grumpily and drowsily, the kids reluctantly arose to come and see. The Six-year-old looked in some disbelief, wondering what those empty bags accidentally sticking out from Daddy’s pocket were all about. My and my wife’s acting skills were stretched to their limits as we boiled up yet another lie about them being some old trash that I was about to throw away.

I eventually managed to pour my children into suitably warm clothes, and get them outside, where they would only be able to see the candy from right behind the shed. You guessed it: the day was saved.

However, as I stood there repeating that the Easter Bunny must have been in a great hurry, why he left all the eggs in one corner of the garden – all in the name of making the illusion complete – I did wonder how I was going to reconcile the fact that I had begun this year’s largest Christian feast day by trying to systematically violate the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth, if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran).

Better get to Church, I suppose. My alarm clock just went off 15 minutes ago.

 

 

Belgian Crisis: A Government Against All Odds

Against all odds, Belgium today gets its new government, under the leadership of Fleming Yves Lterme, nine months after the general election was held. It took one final 21-hour negotiation session to put things in place, as usual, but now there is a deal that will be presented in Parliament today.

Not only is it against all odds that Mr Leterme actually was able to put together a government: domestic and internaitonal press alike are seriously sceptical of its ability to survive. Five parties are enough to make any government shaky, already without adding the extra dimension in Belgium of ethno-lingual conflicts on top of the political-ideological ones. And Mr Leterme will try to keep the government together that he basicaly wasn’t able to forge on his own. Indeed, according to recent polls, not only 90 per cent of the Walloons but also more 55 per cent of the Flemings do not trust him as Premier.

Against all odds is also the fact that “Madame Non”, Joëlle Milquet who played a large part in derailing the attempts to form a government last year by stubbornly letting go of Walloon opposition to the constitutional reform the Flemings in general and Mr Leterme’s CD&V party in particular demand, will take place in the same government. She will be minister of Labour and Equal Opportunities; not exactly a top post in the government, but she’s still there. (Edit: She will have the status as vice Premier, together with all the other party leaders in the coalition as well as one more member from CD&V).
We shall see if the two are capable of cohabiting.

Apart from the Christian Democrat parties CD&V and Ms Milquet’s cdH, the new government also consists of Flemish and Francophone liberal parties Open VLD and MR, and the Francophone socialists PS.

Wrong Tape

I stumbled upon an exhibition today, with pieces of art all made from gaffa tape (duct tape).

It was in the main waiting hall at Brussels’ south station, Gare du Midi / Zuidstation, the one most horrible public building this side of Pyongyang. (No, sorry, I take that back; even the North Koreans couldn’t have come up with the idea of building a train station so as to look like a bunker and put in such an amount of lighting inside that you could be wearing night vision goggles and still not see a thing. But that’s beside the point).

There, I discovered when hovering around while waiting for a bus, they have set up an exhibition in the name of charity, with everything made from gaffa tape. Including a life-sized sculpture of a deer on crutches, a poignant argument in the debate on road safety for animals and people, I was led to understand.

I agree with those who keep writing on the forum “If you can’t fix it with Gaffa tape, you haven’t used enough” on Facebook, a forum where I am a proud member, that “Gaffa tape is the force: it has a dark side, and a light side, and it holds the universe together”, having been involved in music and sound engineering since I was so high. But art made from Gafa tape? Hrm.

But what occurred to me most was the fact that such an exhibition took place right here. In Brussels, of all places, I believe it would be more fitting to have an exhibition with pieces of art all made from Red Tape.

Some Highlights Of My Day

around 14.00    Sat at a press conference with Gordon Brown.

around 15.00    Interviewed the Swedish Prime Minister.

around 18.00    Crawled all over the floor at home on my hands and knees, playing with my little boys.

around 19.30    Partly dismantled my syntheseizer to get a ball pen out that one of my boys had managed to put in there.

around now      Will soon go and roll some meatballs for guests expected for lunch tomorrow.

Who said I lead a humdrum life?

Why Are We Here?

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter today puts its finger on a sore spot: Why have an EU Summit right now at all?

The whole idea of inserting a third summit each year was part of the Lisbon strategy, intended at boosting EU competivity, a (traditionally) unsigned editorial notes. However, it has turned out that the EU manages to boost its capacity for increased competition power perfectly well without the politicians telling people how to do it, thank you very much, and the spring summit is increasingly becoming a bit of a yawn generator. Even Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, concedes on his blog that “this meeting with the European Council will possibly not go down in history as one of the very biggest”.

However, Dagens Nyheter fumes (to the general amusement of my Swedish colleagues here at the EU Summit press room, who have spent the morning speculating who actually wrote the vitriolic editorial in question – the writer was more or less officially identified as Barbro Hedvall), the EU cannot back down from holding spring summits now, because that would be seen as a loss of prestige and – more importantly – a source of speculation about why the leaders wouldn’t want to meet each other, especially who didn’t want to meet who.

I’m not so sure I agree with the criticism. After all, it is never a bad idea that people – especially at high levels – get together and talk. Even if they currently may have little to talk about, there might come other times when having an institutionalised forum may be crucal, instead of wasting precious energy on procedure and formalities. After all, that is what the EU is all about – defusing possible points of conflict before they flare up.

And therein lies a PR problem, because it is always difficult to sell to the general public that we have avoided conflicts to the point where they never happened. “What conflicts?” we EU citizens ask, oblivious to the long and bloody history of our part of the world, where war between the people groups now represented at the negotiation table was the norm, not the exception.

I do realise that the bloodless summits require lots of travelling, security arrangements, and so on. But I’ll take that over war every time.

Summit Time, And The Living Is Easy

I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with Slovenian ham. I’ve just put down two delicious wraps with that and some other stuff in it, and it was lovely. But for some reason, they were the ones that most people here hadn’t touched at all.

In other words: It’s EU Summit time again, and I’m back at the press centre munching free sandwiches, traditionally handed out by the current Presidency so as to avoid insane queues where everybody is trying to pay for their meals. There’s hundreds and hundreds of journalists here, and any attempt to charge money for the food would probably lead to queues the length of Belgium. Where the last in line might get his/her orders in time for the next summit.

The first and second time I visited this event, the catering consisted of incredibly dry baguette rolls with dry chees or ham. Puffs of dust came out as you put your teeth into them. And – they were the only choice.

But that, I understood later, was all due to the presidency of the day, which shall remain unnamed for their culinary crime. Later presidencies have improved the snacks, introduced more variations, and the Portuguese last time offered some quite decent rolls with camembert, which raised my spirits considerably.

The current Slovenian presidency has rightly taken the opportunity to boost interestin its national cuisine, I realised as I just snuck into the press centre to check things out (and, frankly, to get a free snack).  As I said, the Slovenian ham was delicious, and I do hope that my colleagues’ disinclination to try something new and daring doesn’t put this and future presidencies off their attempts to offer something more interesting than air-dried cotton posing as bread.

Let’s see, who’s next in line…. aha, France.  Hmmm. If they do not live up to and beat du pain, du vin, et du Boursin, I shall slam them at their national pride on this blog, eternally shaming them for betraying their proud cuisine. Or something like that.

But first’ I gotta get another one of them ham wraps.

Kyprianou Resigns

I am a bit ashamed of having missed the news; however, a quick net search reveals that so have most other media as well. EU Health Commisisoner Markos Kyprianou has resigned to join the newly elected government in his native Cyprus.

The EU Commission has nominated Androulla Vasiliou (phew, just as I had learned to spell K-y-p-r-i-a-n-o-u)  as his successor.  She is married to the former President of Cyprus, and is expected to take over Mr Kyprianou’s portfolio without further ado until the entire Commission is up for renewal in 18 months.

As with all new Commissioners, however, she must first me approved by the EU Parliament.

Disgusted By The British Media

Rarely have I been so disgusted by the British media as I have today, and their betrayal is twofold.

To begin with, while the most appalling of unmentionable atrocities are being uncovered at a former orphanage in Jersey, the media chooses not to hunt down the perpeetrators still alive and do their job to investigate what exactly went on or how the authorities could let the cover-up continue FORTY YEARS. Who were the protectors in high places? Who of the highbrass were even involved? And who is going to go out and fight for the poor. poor small inocent chidren?

No, instead, the media is full of prince Harry’s days in Afghanistan.

There we have it: a Royal Life is more valuable than scores of abused ordinary children.

That would have bene enough to make me vomit as it is. But the second thing that makes my stomach turn today is the revelation that the British media has collectively agreed to a massive cover-up of the same prince’s deployments.

And they do not even have the decency to be ashamed of betraying their mission in such a way. Rather, they brag about it.

The obvious question is: What else is being covered up? What else has the media agreed to stay silent on, when its first, main, and last task is to report, disclose and reveal?

I most certainly disagree with the main argument against publishing the news that prince Harry had been sent to Afghanistan: that his life would be in danger. That may be true – but, sorry to say and putting it bluntly, that would be his own fault. Nobody is pointing a gun against his Royal Head and forcing him to go there. If the risks are too big, then by all means stay at home.

But what has happened his time is that somebody whose job it is to be in a public position, has decided to do something that he decides would not gain from media coverage, and has therefore had the media agree to his version and participate in a cover-up.

Am I the only one to see that this principle, once the line has been crossed, could easily be applied to yet another thing, and another, and another? What else wold the Royals like to do that doesn’t hold up to the daylight of publicity, that they would be able to persuade the media to stay silent about?

And why do the Holy Royals have such a privilege in today’s modern world, may I ask? Once again, is the Royal Life worth so much to my fellow Britons, that they are prepared to sell their souls for it?

Today, I feel disgusted to call myself a journalist. And a Briton.

For Exit, Don’t Follow The Green Sign

Finding an emergency exit from the European Union no longer involves following any green signs – at least not in Sweden, where one of the two heads of the Green Party has stated that she no longer agrees with the party’s line to demand that Sweden leavs the Union.

Maria Wetterstrand broke the news today, claiming that the EU’s environmental work has been a deciding factor, as well as its shift from a ‘rich man’s club’ towards including a number of more or less impoverished nations in Eastern Europe. In spite of her flagrant break with the party’s official standpoint, she will continue to be the co-leader of the party (Miljöpartiet de Gröna), which prides itself of a dual leadership

While I am contemplating which is the bigger surprise – a complete U-turn by one of the fiercest EU critics in Sweden, or the fact that she will be able to continue to lead a party with which she disagrees on such a crucial issue – the Swedish EU Minister, liberal Cecilia Malmström, couldn’t resist the temptation to muse at the shift in standpoints in a recent press release.

“I welcome Maria Wetterstrand’s turn on the EU issue. The exit demand that Miljöpartiet advocates is not realistic and not something that is asked for among the citizens either and not among Miljöpartiet’s voters either”, she writes with an ill-concealed smirk.

‘Vultures’, I chuckle, as I raise my political binoculars to spot them circling over what may very well blow up into ferocious in-fighting within Miljöpartiet, one of the EU minister’s political opponent parties, which also happens to be one of the key parties that (according to poll after poll) will likely dethrone Ms. Malmström’s government in the next general election in 2010.

There’s nothin’ like a good political brawl.

Belgian Crisis: Leterme In Hospital

Belgium’s next Prime Minister, the Fleming Yves Leterme, has been hospitalised during the last few days because of gastro-intestinal bleeding. As current deputy premier, he has participated in governmental deliberations by telephone.

His spokespeople say that he will be fit to assume the role as Prime Minister on March 20 as planned, in spite of the strain it will mean to try to hold the conflicting interests together.

We shall see what happens.

Belgian Crisis: Soon It’ll Start All Over Again

Belgium’s interim Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has announced that he will hand over power to the controversial Flemish politician Yves Leterme on March 20.

That is three days early, but Mr Verhofstadt – who lost the election last year – believes that he has fulfilled his obligations to take the country out of the immediate rut by then.

However, today, just one full month before the handover, it is still unclear exactly which parties will be part of the new government, let alone which ministers it will consist of. Mr Leterme’s primary coalition partner, Francophone Liberal Didier Reynders, is out shopping around among the various political groupings as we speak, but there is not yet any firm commitment of whatsoever among any number of parties that could form a majority in Parliament.

In other words… here we go again.

Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Me

OK, I’ve had this challenge before without responding to it. And when my friend The IT Mum tossed up the challenge once again some time ago, I thought I’d finally cave in, but haven’t done so until now. The idea is to tell your readers seven secrets about yourself and then challenge seven bloggers to do the same.

Just like The IT Mum, I’ll just leave the challenge here in the open for anyone to pick up. But here are my seven revelations about myself:

* I can’t swim.

* I play a handmade four-string fretless bass guitar tuned to B instead of the standard E.

* I have had both cornea replaced.

* I once invented a guitar chord whch required six fingers to play – and used it in a song, much to the general dismay of my band’s other guitarist.

* I have a fairly crooked left hand (leading to occasional vitriolic comments to the tune of ‘special capacities’ from fellow guitar players when trying to demonstrate how to play e.g. six-finger chords).

* I type so hard that my computer keyboards usually only about 18 months.

* I have had a bald patch about 5 x 5 millimetres big (small!) at the top of my head since I was a baby.

Eat that.

I’ve Got A Flat

In British English, the above headline means “I have an apartment”. In American English, it means “I have a flat tire”. Well, you’re right on both.

I don’t know what it is. But are car tyres generally of worse quality today, or have we completely gone mad when it comes to chucking debris all around us? For the first 15 years or so of holding a driver’s license, I only had a flat tyre three times. Two were on ancient tyres that surprised me by holding out for as long as they did. And oh yes, there was one other that never blew, but where the cord had split and would have blown up on me any moment. But apart from that, nothing.

Since moving to Belgium in 2004, I have now had four flat tyres. But my boss, who lives in the West of Sweden, seems to have had the same experiences lately, with tyres going like balloons on a kiddies’ birthday party.

In at least two of my cases, nails have been involved. (And no, they did NOT come from my garage floor.) On one of the latest, we discovered at least three or four nails when the tyre was removed from the rim. So what’s going on here?

Either we have a fierce and foul competitor, who is conspiring against us at Foodwire and blowing our tyres at night. Or the tyre industry has decided that we all change tyres too seldom, and have collectively impaired their quality accordingly. (Any anti-cartel authority out there reading this?)

Or we have just all become careless when it comes to littering.

Oh bother.

Full Of Holes

The Netherlands have announced that they will not support the new EU budget, when the EU Ministers of Finance are to vote on it next week. The reason is that the Netherlands find the budget proposal too full of faults.

It seems that the Netherlands will be the only country opposing it, though, so it will have little importance, according to Het Financieele Dagblad. However, there are rumours that other countries consider similar opposition.

I don’t know which is the most worrying: an EU budget full of holes or a majority of its member states supporting it.

7-Eleven

My boss just wrote on his blog that a 7-Eleven is coming to the small Swedish town where he lives.

I want a 7-Eleven here in Brussels, too. But there isn’t one in the whole country.

As I’ve probably mentioned, shop hours are quite surprising in what aspires to be the capital of Europe. Everything is closed on Sundays, holidays, and long weekends, with only a few very notable exceptions. If you’ve forgotten to do your shopping, you could easily end up in a sort of wildlife survival experience in your apartment.

And don’t even think about dashing into a shop that happens to be open at the very last minute before closing time. A shop closing at, say, 7pm means that its staff reserves the fight to leave at 7pm. At our local supermarket, they post armed guards (no joking) at the doors about fifteen minutes before closing, to make sure that no last-minute shoppers will sneak in and force the staff to work a few moments’ overtime. Arguing with the guards that opening hours mean opening hours is no idea. I’ve tried.

7-Elevens and their like do not exist. There are a few “night shops”, though, which you even might find aftere some countless hours of driving around, which may be alright if all you need is a vat of over-sugared soft drink or cigarettes, but that’s it.

Quite frankly, I fail to understand the logic. Supermarkets are open all day, usually from 9am, when everybody is at work and have no time to go shopping. Being one of the notable exceptions to confirm the rule, I’ve often snuck in at our local supermarket around then after taking the kids to school, to get one or two things for breakfast or so. There are a few pensioners, one or two other people, and that’s it, staff sitting idly at the tills. Whereas when people do have time to go shopping, in the evenings and during the weekends, the shops are closed.

Supersize Tuesday

As most of you are aware of, today is the (in)famous Super Tuesday in the US, when a large number of states hold their primaries and when it could be de facto decided whch two candidates will stand against each other at the November election.

However, it also happens to be this year’s Mardi Gras, or Fettisdagen, or Shrove Tuesday, when you are either supposed to put on enough fat (hence the “Fat Tuesday” of the two former) or seek abolition for your sins (hence “Shrove Tuesday” for the latter) before Lent begins tomorrow, starting with Ash Wednesday when I suppose you are supposed to don sackcloth and ashes in fasting and repentance.

Remembering my previous blog post, there is probably quite a bit of repentance necessary for most of us Westerners; seeking absolution for our oppression of the Third World would be a very appropriate thing to do. But today is the Fat Tuesday, when we will be indulging in semlor.

Our British heritage should really prompt us to fatten ourselves with pancakes today, but we do that so often otherwise that there’s no point in that. (And I just read that it is now considered too dangerous to arrange pancake races anyway, in these days of the nanny state. Maybe by next year pancakes will have been outlawed too?)

But semlor is a peculiar offshoot of he Swedish cuisine which is gulped down in hedonistic quantities in that country, and revered by expatriates in foreign lands as well. It is simply a wheat bun, filled with marzipan, the top cut off to form a lid under which generous amounts of whipped cream are squirted, and dusted with powdered sugar. It was traditionally served immersed in hot milk as well, but that seems to have waned over the years.

You can buy them everywhere in Sweden this time of the year, but in our case, we have to bake our own. Which brings us to the interesting hunt for marzipan in Brussels in February.

Last year, I didn’t think much of that as any problem. I remembered having seen huge stacks of marzipan blocks at our local Ikea, and just assumed that it would be available all year rund. We invited some Swedish friends, most of them in their first year here and in need of some consolation to get through this day of tradition, and I set out to get the ingredients at the last minute as always.

However, by the time I got around to it, the marzipan was all gone, being a seasonal thing for Christmas only. It was then I re-discovered how difficult it is to bake in Belgium.

I have come across that before. I’m used to baking my own birthday cakes and the like, but I have discovered that it is virtually impossible here in Belgium. Ingredients are notoriously hard to find, and cost a fortune of you do. Ready-made cakes, however, are reasonably priced, so we have got used to the plastic taste over the years and begun buying instead of baking. But of course, you can’t buy semlor.

It seemed that marzipan was not a commodity made available to the general public at all, once I started looking for it in the supermarkets. Which is very surprising because most of the gourmet chocolate houses, which Belgium is known for, display a wide variety or artisanal marzipan goodies as well. (Do the candy makers have secret contracts? Clandestine deliveries late at night?)

And at Christmas, there are no limits to marzipan-based sweets being sold, including a very popular one that is supposed to depict the baby Jesus made from pink marzipan.

I’ve always thought it to be seriously blasphemous to chew up a pink candy baby Jesus, and I was hoping not to have to resort to using a leftover stock of such items, but with the evening arriving and the guests drawing close or the other way, desperation was at a peak and rising.

Finally, I did find some other leftover Christmas candy and the problem was solved. This year, I have stocked up on marzipan from Ikea… and forgotten to invite any guests.

Oh bother.

How Dare Fat Westerners Perpetuate Slavery?

I usually try not to be angry when writing nowadays, but this time, I am making a calculated exception.

It has become a trend lately – in the Western world, I should add – to argue AGAINST Fairtrade. All sorts of fine economical arguments are presented; we write about the latest addition from Sweden to this case in Foodwire today.

This just makes me really, really angry.

While the organisations behind the Faitrade idea need to be consistently scrutinised and examined – it has happened before, and will happen again, than charitable organisations fall into temptations of embezzling money, and other misbehaviours – attacking the whole idea is something only a fat, lazy and ignorant Westerner, safely holed up behind his/her cuddly desk with as little contact as possible with the real world, could do.

For starters, ever since I started writing about the food industry in 2000, I have regularly written reports about outright slavery in the cocoa growing trade. Yes, slavery, a few hundred years since we abolished that practice in our cosy corner of the rich world.

We are talking about children being trafficked, beaten, and exploited, just so you and me can enjoy nice little chockies at a few cents less that we’d otherwise have paid. And we’re talking about reports that are so well-founded that they have forced the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers – albeit kicking and screaming – into attempts to do something about it. (So far, very little has been done, though).

Real lives being ruined. Real little kids having their tender backs ripped open by whips of ruthless adults.

Do the crying and disillusioned faces of these children ever show up in the figures of these Western economist’s calculations?

Moreover, it is always conveniently forgotten that very tempting alternative crops for e.g. coffee growers, should coffee prove unprofitable, are high-paying products such as coca bushes or opium poppies. Crops that pay far higher per kilo, and thus yield more profit per mile as they are carried on labourers’ backs in roadless areas of countries like Colombia.

Do the crying and disillusioned faces of the drug addicts of the Western world ever show up in the figures of these Western economist’s calculations?

Maybe some people should lift their fat backsides and take field trip into the real world. Or, if they support the aforementioned facts that fair trade seeks to avert, why not sell their own children into slavery and drug abuse?

Let the neo-cons do that if they wish, but stay away from my kids and the children of those cocoa, tea and coffee growers toiling for less than these Western vultures earn in the time it would take them to read this blog post.

It Needs To Be Said Over And Over Again