Match Of The Day: Commission Wins On Walkover

Yesterday’s press briefing at the EU Commission ended in a mass walkout in protest. That was the climax of quite an entertaining tug-of-war between the spokesman Johannes Laitenberger and the assembled press corps, due to Tuesday’s early morning raids on several EU institutions on allegations of fraud and corruption.

I should say, this is not the first time there has been fraud scandals involving the EU; one entire Commission had to step down a few years ago in the wake of one such corruption case, and there is a general sense in Brussels today of “here we go again”.

The press room was unusually full, and Mr Laitenberger had the hopeless task of communicating the Commission’s ‘No Comments’ line.

He started on the offensive. Before allowing questions, he made a statement saying that the Commission could not comment on the ongoing investigation, and that it was all in the hands of the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF, why all questions should be put to them. And so he asked everyone to understand that there was nothing more to say.

Upon which a forest of hands shot into the air, to the general laughter from everyone.

For the next 45 minutes or so, journalist after journalist tried to press Mr Laitenberger on different aspects of the scandal, but to no avail. I have the whole match on tape and might sit down some rainy day and count how many times he repeated various variants of the message “we won’t comment on ongoing investigations… ask OLAF… they are independent and we shouldn’t get involved in their work… blah, blah, blah”.

The questions got increasingly irritated. “Why haven’t you called the OLAF and asked them to send someone here, it would only have cost a telephone call”, one French-speaking reporter asked, to the cheer and applause from about everyone else.

“OLAF is independent…blah, blah, blah”.

“You say that OLAF is independent”, another one tried, “but then you have previously invited representatives of Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, or McDonald’s here?”

(general laughter)

“25 minutes of stonewalling”, was another complaint from another journalist.

“We won’t comment on ongoing investigations… blah, blah, blah”.

“Why are those involved allowed to stay on their jobs”, asked another, who reminded us all that whistleblower Paul van Buitenen had been thrown out on his ears when he disclosed what would eventually amount to the fraud scandal that brought a commission down.

“We can’t give any details on the investigation… blah, blah, blah.”

Things got even more amusing as one of the English interpreters, whom I was listening to, was in the strange habit of pronouncing Mr Laitenberger’s first name “Your Highness” instead of “Johannnes”, when translating questions from reporters. Which only added to the fairy-tale sense of an emperor trying to convince everyone that he was not naked.

I was watching the group of Mr Laitenberger’s fellow spokesmen, who usually attend the press briefings in order to be prepared to answer any kind of questions, and they collectively looked painfully happy that it wasn’t they who had to be up there and act as the No Comment machine. Cool as yesterday’s Bratwurst, Mr Laitenberger is far better suited for that task, by the way.

Finally, Mr Laitenberger almost physically moved the press conference on to the next subject.

This triggered a mass walkout; about three fourths of the assembled journalists – an estimated 3-400 people – stood up and walked out of the room in protest.

I was not one of them, not because of my natural cowardice, but simply because I was awaiting another press briefing that was to follow immediately after. And so, the show went on with the scattered remnant, the spokesmen bravely trying to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Now that was a surreal experience.

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Fish’N’Ships

“What’s that on that picture, Great-Grandpa?”atlantic_cod.jpg

“Ah, that’s fish, a kind of animals without arms or legs that used to swim around in the oceans when I was young, children. We used to eat them.”

“Like jellyfish?”

“Eh… not quite.”

“Tofu?”

This is the kind of conversation I do not wish to have with my great-grandchildren. Neither do the European Commissioners, who in about an hour from when this was written (on my laptop travelling on the Brussels Metro by the way) will present their latest attempt to save the world’s free-living fish.

They have tried over and over again to persuade fishermen in the Union what the former Commissioner Franz Fischler used to say: In order for there to be fisheries, there must be fish. But for some unimaginable reason, fishermen and –women have been completely incapable to comprehend this simple equation.

Time and time again, the increasingly frustrated European Commission has tried to slash the amount of fish that can be dragged out of the waters, and every time, protests have made the politicians in the Council to coward away. And then the EU gets the blame for not acting enough.

Protests about what? “Ooooohh, we’ll have to scrap our boats, oooooohhh, our livelihood is threatened, oooooohhhh, our heritage is in jeopardy, oooooohhhhh, our picturesque fishing villages will die”, moan the fishers.

Of course all this will happen – if they don’t cut back their fishing quotas. Which they utterly refuse to accept, because all that is in the long term. Instead, they push the ministers they have elected to take stupid decisions that will satisfy them in the short term.

Basically as clever as trying to get warm on a cold day by peeing in your pants.

As if that were not enough, the amount of fish that can legally be caught – which, remember, is already way too much to ensure that stocks will recover – is only one competitor for the quickly depleting stocks. Another is huge illegal catches. And yet another is human stupidity.

It turns out that much fish is being thrown back into the sea – dead, that is – because fishers’ quotas have already been filled. Or if they’re simply of a kind that the vessel that catches them does not have a quota for. Now, these quotas were put there in the first place to stop too many fish from being killed, but when fishers have filled their quotas, they thus tackle (sic!) the problem by killing even more fish.

Cod, one of the most endangered species, has already become extremely rare, and I for one have only seen it at one restaurant recently. At our local supermarkets, it’s gone. Period. Worse still, fishes used to replace cod – like pollock and hoki – are also becoming equally rare.

Environment groups warn that there is a very real risk that our great-grandchildren will only know of jellyfish in the seas and tofu on their plates. Whether or not the European Commission can come up with something that can change this very alarming trend is something you will read about in Foodwire.

Shell Fuel

Every now and then, the staff at EU Commissioner Margot Wallström invites the Brussels correspondents working for Swedish news media to an informal breakfast meeting to provide some background information. I am not at liberty to reveal in detail what is said there, since the so-called Chatham House Rule applies, but let’s just say it’s a very good way to ge a general feel for what is going on in the intermediate to long term within the Union.

Truly Scandinavian in style, coffee is served together with some not-so-very Scandinavian croissant or so. Except for last time, that is, when the provided entertainment turned out to be of quite a different sort. The coffee tarried, the person in charge of these meetings got angrier and angrier, went out again and again to inquire what was going on, in a tone of voice that increasingly was heard through the walls from the offices where the poor assistants with the task of providing in-house catering were being verbally flogged.

Apparently, the assistants eventually had to fire up their staff coffee machine, meaning that cups were carried in in small clusters, as the machine was working its way through run after run.

Days before that meeting, there had been some criticism from Sweden-based journalists (probably envious because they couldn’t come) about the alleged ethical dilemma such meetings poses. Of course, we joked that the lack of breakfast at that breakfast meeting was some sort of retaliation, but of course, the Commission people denied it.

This morning, we were invited again, and I responded by asking if I should take my own flask. “Cheeky, but we’ll make sure coffee’s there this time”, the response read.

I was seriously tempted to take a flask anyway just for the fun of it, when I suddenly remembered that all our flasks for some unimaginable reason have the look, colour, material, size and shape of small flat-top artillery shells. Or possibly suitcase nukes, depending on your imagination.

Getting such items through security, and the x-ray machines and metal detectors they use there, was not something I was inclined to do, so I cowardly backed off from this practical joke.

Oh, and for those who wonder: This morning’s breakfast was very fine indeed.

Horror Stories

I noticed that someone had found this blog by searching for “EU Brussels Horror Stories”. I find this very amusing indeed!

Hi to you, whoever you are, and welcome to my blog! I didn’t know that there are people searching for such information, but whenever there is an EU horror story to publish, I shall certainly post it here.

Oh, for those who wonder: This blog turned up in the search results thanks to this item. I knew it would come in handy.

Don’t Mention The C-Word

Still no name in sight concerning who held the pen when putting the Berlin declaration into text. Bah, I knew it! It was probably the product of a committee, or written by Frau Dr Merkel herself. Just when you thought it was going to get entertaining.

Anyway. As always, it’s a fun sport to sift through the layers of political science nonsense to see what is not in the text.

One such thing is to read the penultimate paragraph in the declaration and see how they wriggle around trying to avoid using the word “Constitution”. Germany wants one, the French, Dutch, British and other assorted people do not, and the general sentiment in most other countries seems to be “let’s not ask” for fear of getting the wrong answer.

Having a Constitution for the EU is the final nail in the coffin for national supremacy, and the cradle for a European superstate, the reasoning behind that goes. (I’m not quite sure how something can be both a nail and a cradle at the same time, but that’s beside the point.)

So, in order to make everyone happy, Ms-Dr-Merkel’s-secretary-or-whoever-the-unlucky-fellow-was-who-had-to-write-the-final-draft had to try to write “let’s get us a Constitution before 2009” without actually writing “let’s get us a Constitution before 2009”. The resulting euphemistic acrobacy can be enjoyed ->here<-.

Christianity was also deined access in the final round, in spite of heavy lobbying on its part by especially the Poles, at least for a mention.

I’m a Christian by choice and deepest convincement, but still quite divided on whether or not Christianity should be in such a declaration as this. True, Europe is founded on 2,000 years of Christian ethics. This is an historic fact and nothing to try to hide, and then Turkey can rant as much as it likes about the EU being a ‘Christian Club’ to divert attention from its chronic inability of learning to spell the legend h-u-m-a-n r-i-g-h-t-s.

On the other hand, throughout those last 2,000 years, every attempt to impose Christianity from the top in society has ended painfully. The simple reason is that true Christianity lies in the heart of the believer and cannot be commanded forth. And my freedom to advocate and exercise my faith can only be guaranteed in a society that also guarantees others the freedom to refrain from doing so. Freedom, by definition, involves the right to make one’s own choices.

“One Nation Under God” works in the US, where a large number of people voluntarily confess some sort of faith, and there is no history of religious oppression. But in Europe, I’m afraid a similar statement would only provoke a generally negative counter-response. And that is exactly what I, as a Christian, want to avoid.

In other words: If you want to reach Europeans with the Gospel, you’d better avoid conjuring up collective memories of state churches controlling all aspects of life, memories of which lie just beneath the surface.

Not to mention that the true Gospel includes the freedom of option for each individual to reject it.

It Took 50 Years To Come Up With What’s-His-Name

50 000 people gathered at the north Brussels monument Atomium this evening, to watch a major rock concert celebrating the European Union’s 50 years in existence. I was not one of them, because I was putting my kids to bed by the time it started. But together with my wife and viewers in 40 other countries, I was able to watch it on TV.

Without the parking hassle or having to stand outside in the drizzle all night, that is, but that’s beside the point.

Live Aid, Live 8, whatever you may call yourselves, eat this. Here’s a party that has been in the making for 50 years.

Consequently, we have been able to rejoice in a few hours’ entertainment headed by the cream of European artists.

Such as Kim look-at-my-latest-facelift Wilde, ThatGuyWhateverHisNameIs who spends his career informing us that he can’t make up his mind between “a little bit of Sandra in the sun” or “a little bit of Mary all night long”, and Las Ketchup.

It is on late and dark nights such as these that I have my most serious worries about Europe’s future.

No Split Please, We’re Belgian

Belgium’s two population halves – French and Flemish speakers – have had a troubled marriage ever since their wedlock in 1830. I’ve always said that they would have split into two countries long ago, if they’d only been able to decide what to do with Brussels and the Royal family, to which both lay claims. (Apparantly, taking a few princes each doesn’t seem too appealing.)

Imagine my surprise, then, at the survey published this morning by De Standaard and Le Soir, in which an overwhelming majority want to keep Belgium as a country – 93 per cent of the Flemish and 98 per cent of the French.

However, roughly half of them would like more independence (who doesn’t?), and only two thirds of them believe that Belgium actually will stay together to see its 200th anniversary; only one fifth thinks there will be a “Belgium, Twelve Points” in the 2107 Eurovision Song Contest.

Meanwhile, Flemish politicians have decided to investigate complaints that French-speaking officials, hospital workers etc in the border area between the two regions, who are legally obliged to offer assistance in both languages, overwhelmingly are uncapable of communicating in any other language than their own. (That is hardly news to us who live in this area, by the way.)

In other words, “It’s OK to keep our country together… as long as we don’t have to make an effort for it”.