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?”
“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.