Peace Police

I was rolling on the floor laughing, literally in tears, last night upon hearing the explanation why the police in Iceland are not armed: They have made an agreement with the local criminals that if they won’t carry arms, the police won’t either.

Is there such a place in the known universe?

Bag In The EUSSR

Have you noticed how shopping bags are quickly becoming an endangered species? Retailer after retailer is doing away with plasticd bags for your groceries, which used to be free in many supermarkets and made excellent dustbin inserts as well. Nowadays, you either have to buy deliberately pricey but reusable bags, or use boxes.

An attempt to reduce the waste mountains, the abolishing is quickly spreading even to non-food markets. The other day I didn’t even get a plastic bag for my new swimshorts at the local sports gear store, as we were going swimming.

However, being chronically cynical, I can’t help but suspect that there may be other underlying reasons as well. Giving away bags is a loss-making activity; people using them as dustbin linings mean that sales of dustbin bags won’t take off and, ergo, another loss. Having people paying for the reusable bags means they’ll be too stingy to put them in the bin, and thus will have to buy proper waste bags.

It also brings back some memories of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. One of the things I remember most from visiting what was then Leningrad (now St Petersburg) as a child in 1977 was how the grown-ups had to dig out a few sports bags before going to the supermarket in order to get the food items home at all.

The Soviet stores didn’t even offer packaging for any food item that could be sold without one. I remember how nauseating I found the idea of bread loaves and plucked chickens lying around in the open, for anyone to dig around among with their hands, before selecting one that could go into the disused Adidas. I was just about to write something sarcastically vitriolic here in this blog post about that being the next logical step for Western supermarkets as well, when I realised that unpackaged bread loaves and grilled, but unpackaged chickens are as abundant at my local Carrefour as ever in the old Communist state.

Fancy that. 30 years on, the West has caught up. Or however you wish to call it. Who would have thought?

Garlicked

Oh dear, I just overdosed on garlic. It’s so nice I had to take some fresh garlic on my lunch pasta… and now everything tastes garlic. My coffee, the little chocky I had with it… blah.

I suppose tomorrow’s lunch will be, ehrm, cold turkey.

Water Of Love

(Now there’s another blog post title I’ve nicked from a song title from the Jurassic age, when I was still young and beautiful. Go figure.)

Yesterday was one of those where you find yourself searching for the Reset button. When you start closing all the windows thinking that you might be able to pull the old Microsoft trick and restart the whole day.

On the plate: Hard disk change on my stationary computer, which is about as much of an IT heart transplant as it sounds, a task which turned out to include trying to find the power supply adapter cable that I hadn’t thought of. (I now know that SATA disks, which I am testing for the first time, require another power cable than ATAs. And that there are adaptors from the standard Molex. I wish I had known that when I bough the disk, though.)

And then our new car unexpectedly had to be hospitalised, leaving me on foot far from home. I’d taken it in to investigate a strange creaking noise which had been there since one of my family’s members (I have promised her not to divulge who) had a close encounter with a block of concrete, and the repairmen started talking about possible faults of a dimension that sent the cash tills ringing in the back of my head. Not to mention that I need the car to get to the computer shop to get the cable to be able to start working on the endless task of installing, connecting and bleeding water cooling pipes, formatting, partitioning, installing programmes and drivers and moving a three-figure Gigabyte amount of files.

In other words: Stuck.

However, things did change all of a sudden, in one of those ways where you thing that Someone up there is actually looking after me after all. Walking a long distance to the bus stop going home, I suddenly remembered that there was a computer shop right behind me. I went in and explained my ordeal in my pidgin Flemish.

“Oh dear”, said the computer shop guy, doubtfully shaking his head and diving into the cellar. From whence he emerged aome time later with a tiny plastic bag in his hand.

“It’s the last one!”

Back in business! Suddenly I was able to get things running. Collecting the kids from school turned out to be much easier than I thought; they didn’t mind the walk to the garage, and my Mrs came with me to help out. My understanding boss sent me some encouraging words. And the car turned out to have only minor damages which were nicely fixed at a fraction of what we had started fearing.

This general relief was probably why I let myself be dragged without the expected kicking and screaming to the local sports complex to go swimming. My wife used to be a semi-professional; I can’t swim. Hence a source of marital tension. But my six-year-old has been going there for a year with his school, and my four-year-old has recently shown interest, so I had grudgingly agreed to pay the place my first visit.

I must confess, was expecting to spend the next few hours shivering in something run-down and shoddy. After all, I’ve seen so many awful public areas in Belgium to learn not to expect very much, or maybe to have becom prejudiced, sorry to say. Not to mention that the water in every public bath I have been to – in Sweden at least – is usually kept at a temperature suitable for Greenland whales.

But it turned out to be the most brilliant, clean, neat, modern, well-kept and pleasant set of indoor pools I have visited; with some nice features I haven’t seen anywhere else. Refurbished only four years ago! Large windows! Tastefully designed! Hot showers! And warm water in the pools!

My six-year-old was very happy to show Daddy around for the first time, my four-year-old didn’t want to go home, my wife was happily trawling around in the pro pool, and life was suddenly very pleasant again indeed.

I suppose that’s where I got the strength to start wrestling with the computer again, which I did until about 04.30 this morning.

Who Would You Like To Pay To Not Work?

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean “who would you like to bribe so you don’t have to work”. Rather, who would you like to pay to make them stop working?

That’s an interesting dimension of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (one which is due to be done away with today by the way), which BBC correspondent Mark Mardell happily explores in a great blog post which you can read by clicking here. Since it’s already posible to pay farmers for not cultivating parts of their lands, he argues, why stop there? Why not pay other professionals for not doing their jobs?

For instance, I could think of quite a number of politicians, whom I would be quite happy to pay for them not to do any more work.

Oh wait a minute… I already do.

Oh, bother.

Dr. Phil, Our Country Is Breaking Up

With Belgium balancing on the edge of divorce, maybe it’s time to call in relations expert Dr. Phil – a fun fictional account of which can be read here (warning: satire).

Baaa-d

I was going to write w few short lines for Foodwire today about the troubles Greek farmers are currently having to find new goats to use to produce Feta cheese, which under new EU rules can only be produced in Greece. They need to get new animals, because many of the old ones burned in the widespread forest fires there this summer.

As I said, I was going to write something intelligent about this but I couldn’t get my head around it – all I could think of was that grilled Feta sounds rather tasty, especially with some decent roasted meat. I’ve never knowingly tasted grilled goat, but maybe it’s as good as lamb.

But then I felt very ashamed of myself, because the fires claimed a number of human lives. Under the most dreadful of conditions, that is. My colleague Patrik had the hardly enviable assignment some time ago of going there and reporting on it all on TV, an experience from which he returned both shaken and stirred. TV images can never convey the full horror, he told me.

It’s all too easy to forget that there are real people on the often ghastly news images we see every day. Real lives are being ruined, real people lose loved ones. Many of us in the media subconsciously turn their feelings off, distantiating themselves from the truth behind the lines – with a devastating effect on their ability to report in a way that brings the reailty over, I believe.

Others let it affect them to the point when they cannot take it anymore. Only yesterday, I heard an interview with a journalist whose task it was to sort and edit TV footage from various horrorful evets around the world every morning.

“I often cried at the news desk”, she admitted, and eventually decided to quit and spend the rest of her life trying to do things that would make people happy instead. She felt that the news simply could not do that.

I have the deepest sympathy or that. But, then again, if the world never hears of those things, will anyone ever decide to help? However – with too much horror stories, we all choke, turn off, and descend into aid fatigue. Where do you draw the line?

That is just one of the many delicate decisions we journalists face every day. In my case, it contributed to skipping the goats story: forgive me, but I did not want to take the focus away from the people.

But maybe I was wrong – maybe that would have helped to convey the extent of the disaster.

Euromyths Revisited

Just discovered that there’s been a broken link since April to the great compilation of Euromyths I wrote about in this blog post. So, here it is again. Oh, it’s so nice I’ll post it twice, in plain text too: http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/press/euromyths/index_en.htm

Selling Belgium By The Euro

The recent political crisis in Belgium has prompted journalist Gerrit Six to put the entire country up for sale on eBay – as a whole, or in parts.

“Beware of the EUR 300m pubc debt”, Mr Six warned, but received offers of EUR 10m, before eBay withdrew the listing.

Meanwhile, the Belgian gambling watchdog is trying to make gambling company Unibet to stop its bet on when the country will finally have a new government, 101 days into the crisis. It’s illegal, the Kansspelcommissie argues, because Belgian law forbids betting on “events”, save for sports and horse racing. However, they have not yet succeeded in persuading Unibet that the crisis is in fact an “event”, so the betting continues with the highest odds against the country having a new government in place before the turn of the month (25 to 1). The lowest odds, reflecting the general mood of gloom before the task, is on the latest of the alternative dates – December 1.

But by then, there may not be any more Belgium, and hence no Belgian law under which to prosecute Unibet. Something says me that Unibet is gambling on that.

GI Blues

While constantly bemoaning my motor vehicle-style airbag, which popped out from somewhere under my shirt around the time I completed my third decade in this world and has stayed there ever since, I came across an old friend from Elementary school the other day, courtesy of Facebook. As i got a bit curious of what had happened to him since then, I did a quick Internet search as I sometimes do, and lo and behold: He turned out to have been interviewed in a major daily some years ago for having lost 54 (!) kilos, using mainly the GI method.

(He also used to be the biggest Elvis Presley fan I’ve ever known. For those of you who know your King, hence the headline.)

Anyway. For those of you still blissfully unaware of the GI method, it can be summed up with an expression coined by one of its earliest proponents, Dr. Robert Atkins:

“Fat is good, carb is bad.”

That essentially means that you skip all carbohydrate-rich foods – pasta, bread, and anything else that’s tasty – and stick to veg and even meat.

Sigh. I put out a general question on Facebook – “How do I get rid of my potbelly?” – in search of alternative methods. But it only so happened that it was that very school friend (or what’s left of him) who produced the first response to it:

“Don’t, see it as an insurance for harder times. Your skinny body nead some meat on it”.

I am currently celebrating that insight with a large plate of spaghetti, as I write this. WHOLE GRAIN pasta, that is. Eat that.

It Stinks

Here’s the latest gossip on why Commissioner Günter Verheugen will be able to break the EU regulations, lie to half a billion taxpayers about it – and get away with it.

Word has reached me that the talk of the town in Brussels is that even though the Commissioner has broken the Code of Conduct by having an affair with his Chief of Staff, Petra Erler; even though it seems that this might have influenced the decision to hire her for her current job; and even though the Commissioner is blatantly lying about it, the reason why he will get away with it all is that Ms Erler is good friends with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Forget that the Commissioners are supposed to be completely independent from all instructions from member states. The world of realpolitik speaks a different language.

Commissioner Verheugen’s boss, José Manuel Barroso, is said to be keen on securing a second term in office as President of the Commission, as his first term expires in 2009. Therefore, the rumours go, he does not want to get into any trouble with the German chancellor, and therefore, the same rumours have it, he will turn a blind eye to the breach of regulations carried out by Commissioner Verheugen and the German chancellor’s good friend.

Thus, the Commissioner and the Chief of Staff can continue breaking the EU regulations as happily as they wish.

If all this is true, which I cannot attest to or validate in any way, then the German chancellor is as involved in all this as anyone else. Then she is both assisting in violating the rights of 500m European citizens to have their tax money spent according to the rules – AND making new, fresh violations of a number of EU laws and regulations herself.

In the US, it would have been impossible to get away with all this, as history has proven, since the United States has once and for all very wisely established fundamental power-sharing and checks and balances in its Constitution. In the EU, however, there are no such control mechanisms. Once in office, the EU Commission answers legally to no-one.
Morally, they answer to us tax payers, but there is no legal way to demand this responsibility.

Thus, the Commissioner can continue lying and continue demanding that we all believe in his fairytales. “This is a private matter…” – thus speaks the arrogance of power.

This leaves me with the question: If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, then what is the opposite of “constitution”?

Investigate, But Not Us

Margot Wallström, vice president of the EU Commission, today writes in defence of us journalists, and our right to do our job to act on behalf of the general public without risking our lives, on her blog (read the full entry here).

Very nice. Indeed, Ms Wallström is usually generous with media access herself, being one of the few Commissioners to have a blog and inviting those of us who work for Swedish media to regular press breakfasts.

However, the very first comment to that post on her blog pointed out how the Commission acted only a few years ago, when Stern Magazine correspondent Hans-Martin Tillack did just that, and examined the EU itself. He was arrested by police and his material seized for reporting on fraud within the EU statistics office Eurostat, a blatant violation of all fundamental freedom of press characteristics and an abusive behaviour unworthy of the emerging semi-federal superpower we call the European Union. Adding insult to injury, the EU’s own court ruled that the Belgian police raid of course had noooooothing to do with complaints from EU institutions (read the full story here; note that that verdict came only a year ago).

So how can Ms Wallström advocate press freedom, when she happily participates in such an atempt to silence an ‘unruly’ reporter, the commentator asks, demanding (again) an apology from the Commissioner.

We shall see whether or not such an apology will emerge. I must remember to ask her personally next time I meet her.

Liar Liar

This is the face of a man who seems to be about to lie himself out of a job.

It became only too clear on Thursday, as fresh new information about his – EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen’s – affair with his chiefof staff Petra Erler became public. German media have quoted a party colleague saying that he confessed the affair to her, and you can find a picture of Mr Verheugen and Ms Erler hand in hand here. Click here for another picture of the two, which is said to depict Mr Verheugen leaving Ms Erler’s home in the early morning of August 2 this year.

And yet, the Commissioner has the NERVE to maintain the same story as always: I have nothing to say… my marriage is a private business.

Excuse me, Commissioner, but while your MARRIAGE may be private, your RELATIONS with your STAFF is not. Especially if they turn out to have affected their appointments to their jobs.

That is something I and several other journalists pointed out to the Commission’s spokespeople at Thursday’s press conference, only to be met but the usual stonewalling, a number of variants of the old “No Comments” line.

At least, we finally got them to repeat Mr Verheugen’s statement that he did not have an affair with Ms Erler “at the time of her appointment”. (No word on whether that happened before or after.)

That means that he has now nailed himself to his story, which is becoming increasingly impossible as details surface. There are pictures and witnesses to tell a different story already, and there will probably be more to come. His wife has publicly admitted that she is leaving him.

(The latter fact made Mr Verheugen’s story even more hollow, as he clung on to the statement “I and my wife have agreed not to discuss this in public”. Well, newsflash: Your wife just did. Doesn’t that make you a liar once again?)

“He won’t survive this”, a German-speaking journalist remarked to me as we were leaving the press conferece. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that Mr Verheugen is lying half a billion Europeans straight to their faces

I and my fellow journalists (and European citizens) do not intend to hold any moral tribunal here. If Mr Verheugen is having extramarital affairs, it technically has nothing to do with his job. However, if he is having an affair or has had an affair with his chief of staff, it most certainly has everything to do with his job. Moreover, it is also a blatant breach of the Code of Conduct laid down not by us, but by the European Union itself.

The Commission’s President Barroso now faces the following choices:

1) Either he believes his Commissioner’s version. Then he is sadly gullible, and risks his own job if proven wrong.

2) Or he chooses to disbelieve him. Then he must sack the Commissioner.

3) Or he knows that Mr Verheugen is lying. Then he is also lying to you and me and everyone else, and equally arrogant in the notion that he or they will get away with it. Then he SHOULD lose his job.

I’m sorry for sounding enraged. But I cannot tolerate the sheer arrogance of someone shoving lies down my throat and expecting to get away with it. And the arrogance – once again, the arrogance – of how the Commissioner has so far responded to the allegations is unworthy of someone whose salary is paid forby me and half a billion other Europeans.

Do the right thing, Commissioner. At least former President Clinton had the guts to confess to his similar extramarital activities, which saved him by a hair’s breadth. If you could at least have the same courage, you might escape this sorry mess slightly less battered than what will probably now be the case.

The alternative is that you risk your job – and the rest of the Commission’s jobs as well.

Please Release Me

Three months have past since Belgium had its general election, and there is still no government in place.

The reason is, in short, that the two halves of the country – Flanders and Wallonia – cannot agree on how to run the country. There are very deep and old conflicts lying underneath, which have again surfaced as political problems for the attempts to patch together a government that wolud have a majority in Parliament across not only political, but also across linguistic, dividing lines.

Consequently, the old question of whether or not to break the country up has surfaced again. A recent poll by the TV magazine “Koppen” showed that 91 per cent of the Walloons were against such a break-up – but only 60 per cent of the Flemings. Egged on by such support, parties like extreme-right, populist and xenophobic Vlaams Belang have tabled new suggestions to end the 177-year-old state once and for all.

So far, there is no popular majority for a break-up. But if the current governmental crisis lingers on, that could very well change in Flanders, as the margin there is so small. That would lead to what the Walloons really fear: a unilateral breakaway by the Flemings.

In fact, Wallonia was scared stiff some time ago as Wallonian TV RTBF staged a War-of-the-Worlds-style hoax about Flanders having declared independency, which I have written about in a previous post. The outrage following the TV spectacle was only topped by the fact that most Walloons are seriously worried that their Northern neighbours will blow their country to pieces.

It used to be that key bolts keeping the country together were the Royal family and the captial. However, in the same poll, a majority of the Flemings basically said that the Walloons can keep the King, as they would prefer a republic. The question, then, is what would happen to Brussels. Both sides claim it, even though Flemish separatists have spoken about Antwerp or Ghent as an alternative capital.

There has even been talk about creating a Vatican-style (or, rather, Washington DC-style) enclave under EU rule out of the Brussels area. The EU has so far refused to comment on such ideas.

However, questions were also put to the EU Commission recently about the risk of Belgium disintegrating violently, as did Yugoslavia. The reponse was that it was next to absurd to compare the two.

“Don’t be too sure”, a colleague remarked to me, and I must confess that my wife and I have had similar talks. What would happen if the whole thing goes overboard? Will there be a forced separation? Will there be fighting in the streets?

It may seem absurd – but it did happen in Yugoslavia. And it did happen here, only less than 200 years ago, when Belgium broke away from the Netherlands to the tone of a seven-year war.

If it does happen here again, God forbid, our home is in the middle of the battle zone. All of a sudden, we have had second thoughts about ever buying property here.

Posted in Belgium, EU. 2 Comments »

Gimme Shelter

The EU and the Brussels City council recently outlined plans to clean up and reshape the EU quarter area. No, save your champagne, they’re not tearing down the Berlaymonster; but the Commission has finally realised that having its staf spread out across 61 buildings (I kid you not) is not a workable order of things. There will be an architecture competition, we have been told, and then there will of course be the usual haggling, protesting, lawsuits, counter-suits and delays before any new behemoth buildings may be inaugurated, we were not told but everybody knows from experience. (After all, the Berlaymonster took 13 years to refurbish, and then the structure was already in place and the previous buildings already bulldozed.)

Thus, the stage is set for some morre ghastly blobs of concrete spilled out acros this part of town. However, I’m not so sure that this is such a bad thing at all. The current shacks along these streets are absolutely terrible, as some quarters are littered with run-down excuses for age-old buildings that have been abandoned long time ago and should have become excavator fodder at least during the last century. Walk a mile or two in any direction from the Berlaymonster, and you are bound to have past blocks that look like World War Two ended yesterday. Or is still going on. Moreover, they are occupying land that is (understandably) among the priciest in the city – a fine well of revenue that the Brussels region no doubt could have good use for.

Yes, it’s going to cost the European taxpayers a lot of money to build new offices. However, the current order also costs a lot of money and wasted time with staff scattered like chaff across buildings that are usually beyond refurbishability (new word there).

So… get onto your drawing boards now, folks, and make sure that they don’t come up with something ugly and unusable again.

Sorry

That press conference with Günter Verheugen was Tuesday. Sorry…

Fa(r)cebook

OK, OK, I confess. I have fallen for the trend and have now set up shop on Facebook, thus ading to the growing number of employees who are tempted to administer their private Facebook accounts during work hours. A practice which has already prompted several companies to block internet access to the site.

Interestingly enough, I just discovered that one of those is the EU. I mean, I can’t vouch for the accessibility among staff, but here in the Commission’s press room, you cannot reach Facebook even when using your own computer.

Either there has been so much private surfing among staff that the Commission had to do something about it and extended the ban to the Press network by mistake, or I ought to be touched by the EU’s concern for the time efficiency of the media companies we journalists work for.

So, we’ll just have to get to do some real work, then. In an hour, Commissioner Verheugen is to hold a joint press conference about security, but since we are kept busy working, I expect one or two to have thought out some entertaining questions about Günter Verheugen’s active love life instead (see previous post).

Ho hum, this may be very entertaining.

Come On Baby Light My Fire

Thursday’s press conference at the EU Commission revolved largely – after a nice gesture by spokesman Johannes Laitenberger of reading out an official condolence in Italian about Luciano Pavarotti’s death – around commissioner Günter Verheugen’s sex life.

Believe it or not, Eurocrats have such areas of life, too. And in the case of Mr Verheugen, it’s quite a vivid one or so it seems, for he has been rumoured to have an affair with his chief of staff Petra Erler since last year.

Um, not only rumoured: there have been pictures taken of the two of them hand in hand on a beach in Lithuania – naked.

The matter is slightly complicated by the fact that Mr Verheugen is said to have intervened to ensure that Ms Erler was promoted to her current high-paying job (which she accesed on, of all days, April 1 this year). And by the fact that Mr Verheugen happens to be married. To someone else.

On Thursday, reporters again started asking questions abaout all this, against the background that Mr Verheugen’s wife is now quoted to have asked for a divorce. The defence line was as always: Mr Verheugen’s private life concerns no-one but himself.

As commendable as such a stance might seem at a first glance, it becomes very troublesome (to say the least) if private life interests begin influencing professional decisions. A previous commissioner, Édith Cresson, had to resign for doing exactly what Mr Verheugen is now being accused of: employing a lover at a high-paid job, regardless of formal qualifications.

She brought the entire Santer commission down with her. It was the first time a Commission had to resign prematurely.

(“It would have been more of a problem if he had had a relation with the chief of staff of another directorate-general”, remarked a colleague to me to mutual chuckle as we were sitting in the press room listening to the verbal duel.)

Everybody knows that this is potentially Commission-toppling material, which is the reason both for the persistent questions from the journalists as well as for the stonewalling attempts from Mr Verheugen.

This stonewalling yesterday became farcical, as the spokesman maintained that nothing had changed since this summer, when the matter was highlighted last time.

In the middle of the grilling, as questions about conflict of interest and violation of various EU Treaty articles were reaching boiling point, there was a sudden BZZZZZZZZZZZ sound filling the press room: The fire alarm went off.

Everybody started laughing.

“That’s certainly not the first time that happens”, remarked another colleague frostily to explain the reaction; “the same thing happened when they were grilled about the same thing during the summer”.

Creative use of equipment intended to fight hazards stemming from overheating, perhaps. Or maybe an automatic response to the overuse of verbal smokescreens.

Well, at least we weren’t sprayed with any water from the sprinkler system.

Maybe next time… or then they’ll just bring the water cannons in.