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.

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”.

Yes, It IS The Same Blog

I’ve just had some fun changing it around a bit. (Those huge staring eyes weren’t such a good idea after all.)

Please feel invited to check out some of the new stuff!

The EU As A Football Team

Among the more peculiar attempts to raise some sort of festive mood in the adent of the European Union’s 50th birthday was a recent football (soccer) game between Manchester United and a team named Europe XI at the Old Trafford. The announcement of this led to some amused questions by journalists, and EU Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen found it necessary at at least two different press conferences to repeatedly underline that the Commissioners themselves would not take part in that team. To the general dismay for those of us who might have wanted to see Mr Barroso et consortes get a good tackle or so.

Anyway. This spurred my imagination into thinking how the EU institutions would perform as a football team.

First, there is no manager. There is a collective of 27 people all trying to influence coaching, but they can only give general directions, mostly in the neighbourhood of “Strategy: Put ball into goal“. They take turn organising the training, which means that strategy changes every six months.

Second, there is a captain, but he can only propose what to do. The decisions are taken by yet another body of 27 managers, the composition of which changes depending on whether we are talking which way e.g. the goalkeeper or the forwards should go.

Third, the supporter club insists on having opinions about everything and anything, but does not have the power to really change much. And a number of members in the supporter club cheer for opposing teams or want their team to be dismantled altogether.

Fourth, because of the constant infighting within the team, it has set up its own court to settle disputes between them. This doesn’t stop some of them from grumbling that they’d be better off leaving the field altogether, maybe joining another team. However, there’s really no established way for such transfers.

Fifth, outside the dressing room are a number of other players wanting very badly to get on the team, and they are usually let in without much further ado. Except one, because it refuses to seek professional help for its sado-masochistic tendencies. This leaves the field increasingly crowded with players who keep running in all directions, sometimes charging towards their own goal.

Sixth, everybody keeps shouting their opinions in their own language. Since they cannot agree on using a comon one, the field is even more crowded by an army of translators, who have to follow their every step. Since things sometimes get lost in translation, the left forwards insist that everyone should use their language.

Seventh, the team spends considerable time arguing against the referee, in spite of the real risk of being sent off the field.

Eighth, it is plagued by hooligans, many of which believe there should be no game altogether, or even that the entire sport should be abolished.

In other words – sounds just like Arsenal.

(For those of you who wonder: The match ended 4-3 to Man U.)

EUuuuuwwww

Warning: If you are sensitive or easily grossed out, please do not read this item.

Sometimes trawling the Net for news can lead you into the strangest of side tracks. While scanning the headlines in today’s papers, I found myself reading about the guy who is currently swimming the length of the Amazon river (actually, I was reading this). And from there. I ended up reading about one of the more intricate perils that threaten his quest, which you can watch another account of here. (about 4 mins video)

As I was reading this pelvis-centered real-life horror story in increasing terror, there was a sudden BUZZZZZ in my pocket. I probably leapt up a few feet in mid-air, and only just managed to save my laptop – which was actually on my lap – from crashing to our stone floor, frightening my wife who wondered what on earth was going on.

It turned out to be an SMS. Since the ring signal on my cell phone is rather weak, I keep its silent alarm – a vibrator – on permanently. And so my phone was trying to tell me that I had a new message that said something or other about the development at the EU’s transport minister’s meeting.

Well, at least I can blame the EU for scaring the living daylights out of me.

But I think I should get another cell phone.

Two Choices

Some time ago, I enjoyed a great sermon in my church along the lines of “You’ve Got Two Choices”.

Before saying anything else, I should add that my church is NOT into whacking people over their heads with simple fix-all solutions. (I would run for the door if that would ever happen, let me assure you.) Rather, its preachers usually draw upon their own experiences, pains, struggles and joys to help and encourage.

Anyway. I remembered this as I realised that I could choose to look at my life right now in two different ways.

Either:

1) Ten years ago this month, I was living in Brussels, I was cold and soaked, I was broke, I felt I had accomplished very little in life, I had no idea about the future, and I was driving an old automatic gearbox car that cost a lot of money in repairs. Today, I am living in Brussels, I am cold and sometimes soaked, I am broke, I feel I had accomplished very little in life, I have little idea about the future, and I am driving an old automatic gearbox car that costs a lot of money in repairs.

Or:

2) Ten years ago this month, I was living in a crummy, run-down shambolic useless excuse for an apartment, which my then girlfriend Y could hardly visit for fear of the neighbourhood, I had no job, no family, precious little food, and no education. Today, I am living in a beautiful apartment, my girlfriend Y now having become my wife, in a neighbourhood which is as safe as it gets, I have a great job, two wonderful children, food on the table, and a BA.

Both ways of looking at the last ten years are equally true factually speaking. The entire difference is in what we journalists would call “the angle”, or, to put it into the context where I started, which choice I make when thinking of things.

The Best Kept Secret In The EU Right Now

This year is the EU’s 50th. Celebrated in many ways – with rock concerts in some places, with anonymous seminars in others. And, of course, with a special declaration to mark the event, which will be proclaimed in Berlin on Sunday.

None of this is any secret, of course. Not even its contents are particularly obscure: details have alreday leaked here (I’m quite sure that EU Observer has someone permanently bribed in the EU’s printing offices, by the way, because they always break news just as the official versions are going to print) “Not more than three pages long”, huh? Well, THAT’ll be a thrill, we could all need some bedtime reading. Perhaps I could read it to my kids when they get fed up with their current top stories (thanks’ Granny!) But that’s beside the point.

Anyway. What is the Union’s best-kept secret, on the other hand, is who will write the Berlin Declaration. Wel-founded rumours have it that it will be a well-renowned journalist or author, to give it a good legible touch (you can already see why I’m disqualified 🙂 ).

Over and over again, top people have been asked who it is, but no details have surfaced. Carl Bildt, Swedish prime minister-turned-foreign minister and frequent blogger, seemed as genuinely surprised at the question as he seemed interested in writing it himself. Maybe he felt bypassed.

So who was given the honour? A Frenchman, the French probably would have insisted, but then the Spaniards and the Germans would probably have objected. A German? The French would cry foul. An Italian? But what about the new member states? And after all, it’s the Swedes who decide who get the Nobel Prize for Literature, right?

We shall probably learn on Sunday – or perhaps s/he will have to remain forever anonymous, so as not to stir up any dissent. Given that this is not simply a rumour spread out by Barroso et consortes to conceal the fact that in was cooked up in committee like so many other stuff that the Union puts on paper, I’ll keep my fingers crossed they’ve had the sense to ask someone like Umberto Eco or Václav Havel (where’s Astrid Lindgren when you need her?!?!)

Or Dario Fo, or Roberto Benigni. Man, that would be a laugh. Oh please, oh please…

Posted in EU, Humour. 3 Comments »

Currently Listening

My feet is my only carriage

So I gotta push on through

Everything’s gonna be all right

Everything’s gonna be all right

 

Everything’s gonna be all right

Everything’s gonna be all right

 

–Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry

I Should Say Something About The Weather

This morning, the sun was shining. This afternoon, we had sleet. This evening, there is snow. Belgium is the country with foru seasons, all in the same day. Sometimes all at once.

The demonstration I just wrote about took place just as the sleet started blessing us. There we were, journalists, activists and ministers, equally soaked and frozen, while trying to communicate about chicken cages (the demonstration was against holding chicken in small cages without any chicken-friendly furniture in them. I actually asked the Swedish Agriculture Minister, pointing to the precipitation, “so this is what you want to force the poor chickens out into, when they can stay nice and warm in their cages indoors??”, but I didn’t get much of a reply to that.)

I used to complain to myself (and anybody else who could be bothered to at least pretend to listen) that the weather reports on VRT (the Flemish public service TV) were, and are, always very thorough, very lengthy, very pedagogical, and very wrong. But then I’ve reliased that they’re usually correct some time during the day, if so for only five minutes.

At least, I’m happy to have resisted my impulse this morning to leave my winter jacket at home.

How I Hate The Brussels Metro

I began writing this by hand, scribbled on the back of an EU Council agenda, standing up in the middle of a steel can of compressed human flesh commonly known as The Brussels Metro. In a fit of desperation to control my claustrophobia, that is.

Yes, I know, anyone who has ever managed to squeeze him/herself down the London Tube during rush hour, or, as I understand, onto any train in Japan at any given point, will probably think I am whining about nothing. But the Brussels Metro has this strange, rubbery, CO2-filled stench, which adds quite considerably to the nausea already originating from the combination of being compressed into corned beef together with a group of total strangers, the stop-go rolling and tumbling of the train itself, fatigue, hunger and general angst. Blah.

It gets hot, too, and it is as dimly lit as every other public place in Brussels. So maybe it is an attempt by the ever-present Catholic Church to remind us, poor travelling souls, of the perils at the next underground level that awaits the sinners? In fact, some days, you almost wonder how deep underground the Metro train goes, come to that. Maybe that stench is brimstone, after all.

The funny thing is that the trains are usually about as long as half the platforms at the stations. So why, oh why, can’t they just add on a few cars?

Hang On, Commission, I’m Trying To Get My Buddies Elected

EU Commissioner Louis Michel is taking time off to campaign for his party in the upcoming general election in Belgium. (He’s only the last name on the ballot, but still.) His colleague Margot Wallström, seriously close friend with the new leader of the Swedish Social Democrat opposition party Mona Sahlin, is going to start hammering out the party’s EU policy in the advent of the 2010 general election there – without taking time off from her role as Commissioner. All of this led to a string of questions from Swedish and Belgian journalists today.

“Of course”, the spokespeople said in unison when questioned if Ms Wallström’s party work was compatible with the Commission’s code of conduct. (What else would they say?) They are “political animals”, the journalists were told. And Mr Michel will return to his job once the election is over, they assured, in spite of Mr Michel himself being seriously ambivalent on the matter when questioned on TV recently.

For those of you who wonder, Commissioners are supposed to pledge allegiance to the EU, and promise to act in its interest. I personally doubt that they are strengthening the confidence people may have in them by sneaking out to their party headquarters in the middle of their terms, no matter what the code of conduct says. Either they work for the EU or they don’t. And how are we supposed to trust that Mr Michel’s and Ms Wallström’s respective parties aren’t given sensitive inside information to use in the elections? (After all, Ms Wallström’s main job is that of communication…)

Not to mention the fact that Ms Wallström will technically be actively working against the Swedish government, while dealing with it over EU matters.

The chap who is going to take over Mr Michel’s job is Olli Rehn. “Has he even been to Africa?” one journalist asked, and was told that he has been, er, working with foreign aid to Africa (but we still don’t know if he’s actually been there).

At the same time, the poor Romanian commissioner Leonard Orban is spending his days carrying the, ehrm, not-so-particularly-heavy portfolio of multilingualism, for which he is perpetually ridiculed in Brussels circuits, as the EU had basically run out of issues to commission by the time Romania joined the club. So now, one commissioner is doing two people’s jobs, while another is wasting away in a Mickey Mouse position.

There may be some wisdom in that…. but I’m not sure I can discern it.

Protesting Against Yourself

Today, the Swedish Minister of Agriculture Eskil Erlandsson will take part in the quasi-monthly meeting with his colleagues in all the other EU states. But in the middle of it all (in about an hour), he will go out in the street outside and join a gang of demonstrators trying to get the attention of the same meeting.

I’m not quite sure I understand this. Yes, he is a quiet man, but doesn’t he believe that he will be able to get the other Agriculture Ministers’ attention inside the building where the meeting is held?

So I’ll be there to ask a few questions. His responses will be in tomorrow’s Foodwire.

Posted in EU. 2 Comments »

Bless me, dear reader, for I have sinned

Being a French speaker isn’t getting any easier in the EU these days. Not only are you reminded every day that your language is no longer dominant: the language of the archenemy England has taken over. Woe.

At the daily press conference at the European Commission recently, someone had put out a set of screens behind the podium commemorating the EU’s 50th birthday, which is on March 27. Fine. It said “Together since 1957” in English at the top, and then the same thing in various artistic ways in all of the Union’s gazillion official languages. Fine too.

But of course. Then came the obligatory question from a French speaking journalist: I notice that there is one language that has been given a special position… Shouldn’t you use the languages used by the first member states… What about all the languages in the new member states in Eastern Europe… blah, blah, blah. Alors.

But the Commission President’s spokesman Johannes Laitenberger gave a response that made me, for once, sin against the journalists’ golden rule No Applause From The Press Section:

“The design was by an EU citizen from one of the new member states”, he said, and after a brief elaboration (all in French of course), reached the punch line:

“But for those of you who wonder, I can say that the headline means ‘Together since 1957′”.

Touché, monsieur Laitenberger.

I promised myself never to start a blog

So here it is.