Belgian Crisis: New Election May Come

There may soon be new elections in Belgium in order to resolve the current crisis. This has become clear as the Flemish Minister of Interior, Marino Keulen, has ordered local authorities not to scrap their old voting computers.

These older computers were to be used one last time in the last election before being retired, and will be unusable at the next elections in 2009, VRT reports. Thus, the only reason for keeping them now would be that the Belgian state is preparing itself for a new election. This would be to try to form a Parliament with a distribution of votes among parties which will enable a majority to form a government, something that the current Parliament is seemingly unable to do.

“The councils must count on that there may perhaps be interim elections”, Mr Keulen is quoted to having said in the Flemish Parliament.

The prospect that they would be used for a first election in an independent Flanders seems less likely, since the Flemish parliament is already in session and the Flemish government is up and running.

It’s A Wonderful World When You’re Rolling In Dollars… NOW!

My boss just wired me some money. Nothing strange about that. It’s part of his job. And as usual, the transfer will take three days.

Now, that’s more strange, however.

It’s the same with most money transfers these days, which are now almost as quick as during the days when you would give the money to a runner on a horse and have him gallop off to the recipient in person. Today, using computers and a supposedly blink-of-an-eye-speed monetary system, transfers between banks in the known Western world commonly takes three days.

Some banks take three days even for transfers within the same bank. None mentioned, none forgotten: they are all sinners one way or another.

Now can anybody explain to me where the money is in the meantime? Held up in some digital roadblock on the Information Superhighway? Having to present its papers at some virtual checkpoint in today’s borderless global Internet world?

More interestingly still, exactly how is this possible? I mean, this is supposed to be the age of modern computer technology, where I can send a message to Australia and back in a split second. In fact, this very blog post may very well have spun a few times around the globe before reaching your computer screen. We read every day how investors press a button and ZOOM! goes a batch of dough equivalent to Belgium’s national debt into some offshore investor’s account (and out from under the feet of some poor company, sending it into bankruptcy, but that’s another story).

So how do the banks actually manage to make a money transfer for us common mortals last three days? Do they use computers at all, or have they upgraded to homing doves? Or smoke signals? Digital smoke signals, that is, having some poor bloke do the miserable smoke signals in binary – “one, zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero, cough, cough, oh, bother, there’s supposed to be a one there, I’ll have to start over again”.

Or is there some gigantic cash vault somewhere, where they pour all the bread in for a few days in order to have some time for a money-rolling orgy, whith bank managers wallowing in dollars like Scrooge McDuck and back-office clerks pouring fistfuls of euros over their heads?

The prosaic answer is of course that they are sitting on the money for a few days, cashing in interest by the minute, while not having to pay any interest to the rightful owners of the money.

You and me, that is.

Lego’s Lost It

Iknow, I know, this has nothing to do with EU policies. But this week means Autumn (Fall) break in large parts of Europe, including here in Belgium. In short, that means that my two sons, four and six years old, are spending the week at home. The weather is as grey as you would have guessed, and consequently, they are already climbing the walls.

It is on those occasions that you have ample opportunity to ponder the quality of toys, which in their case happens to be a Lego car each, brought home from Luxemburg as a consolation by their Daddy for being away for two full days, talking fisheries and other EU Agricultural policies. Ample, I’d say, because of the tears and frustration Lego brings to today’s kids.

When I grew up, Lego was a set of pretty anonymous little plastic bricks with only two defining characteristics:

1) They hurt the living daylights out of our parents when they stepped on them bare-footed on their way to the bathroom at night.

2) You could build ANYTHING with them.

Today’s Lego bricks also have two defining characteristics:

1) They are so small and tiny that they either vanish or get sucked into the hoover by mistake before anyone gets to step on them by night.

2) Every piece is so specialised that you can’t build ANYTHING with them.

Including the one toy you are supposed to build with each kit, that is. The instructions for a tiny fire engine or police car are commonly two pages long, and so complicated that even Daddy would have had problems with it unless he’d spent the last decade assembling IKEA furniture every few months. Four-year-olds rarely have that experience. Consequently, they’re in tears after the first few moments.

Then comes the hard part. Today’s Lego toys are so aggressively poorly constructed that they fall apart by themselves before you can say Ole Kirk Christiansen. To be technical about it, they’re usually so scaled down that each joint is only held together by one single… what do they call those little round bumps? One and none more it is, anyway. Thus defying the laws of nature, there can only be one logical result: the toys come apart. Straight away.

The consequence of this is that today’s children learn about Lego toys falling apart, before they learn about Lego being something fun to build together. It used to be the other way around. Their only point of reference to Lego is that the Lego toys look and perform like some fifth-grade imitation of Playmobil.

And that’s probably the clue. Lego seems to have completely lost faith in its own business model, and decided to try to take ground from rival Playmobil. Problem is, they will never be able to make something designed to look and behave like one thing look and behave like something else. And judging from the heavy losses the Lego Group has been making during the last few years, the consumers have discovered, too, that Lego is basically making an utter fool of itself abandoning such a genial formula it once was in order to become a simple copy of something else it can never live up to.

There’s a lesson in there for all of us: Stay who you are… don’t become a bleak copy of someone else. You are unique; dare to trust being yourself.

I only wish I could explain that to the kiddies, though.

Fakebook

Just couldn’t resist linking to this excellent article, which spells out all that is wrong with fantasy valuations of dot.com’s and their grandchildren: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,,2200452,00.html

Error

In my previous blog post, I wrote that negotiaitons in the Belgian government formation were taking an autumn (fall) break. That is wrong; they are continuing as usual and resume today (Monday) at 09:00. My apologies.

The chief negotiator, Yves Leterme (CD&V) who will likely become Prime Minister if his attempts succeed, says he believes most things will be agreed on by Wednesday, VRT reports. Except, that is, the most difficult questions of whether or not to reform the power balance between the federal and regional authorities, the budget, and the eternal issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency (see previous post).

Belgian Crisis: Make Or Break By Nov. 7

The negotiators have given themselves until November 7, after having an Autumn (Fall) break, to patch together a new Belgian government, the Flemish TV channel VRT reports. If there is no deal by then, the current attempts to form a new government will be abandoned.

The most difficult question of them all, that of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constutuency which the Flemish claim discriminate them and wants split (which the French-speakers oppose), has not yet been resolved, but is up for negotiation only by then. Thus, the constituency question may very well become the deal-breaker.

It will take some considerable courage by the French-speakers, whichever they decide. If they maintain their resistance to a split, they risk starting a chain of events that could break up the country, because there is little hope that there will be any majority in Parliament for a government composed of parties none of which insisting on the split. And a break-up of the country is rejected by an overwhelming majority of their own voters.

If they, on the other hand, do concede to a split of the constituency, they take a serious political risk of being bogged down in an ‘appeasement policy’ debate among their own voters, and may risk their seats in the next election. Emerging as The Ones Who Saved The Country would be their only hope to avoind being branded as traitors, and it is a risky game to play.

For the Flemish, the stakes are high too. They must push ahead with insisting on a split, in order to avoid radicalising their own. The latest election was largely an attempt to divide the Flemish nationalists and split their votes in order to weaken the ultra-right (if not right-wing extremist) Vlaams Belang, an atempt wich partly succeeded. However, shold the current election winners on the Flemish side prove incapable of furthering the Flemish interests, many voters will likely be driven back into the arms of Vlaams Belang.

The Flemish are, at best, indifferent to breaking up the country. Only a small majority oppose it, and most people seem virtually indifferent: they think it will all be for the best either way. This is a remarkable contrast to the flag-waving neo-Belgicism of the French-speakers, which seems to be growing – or is at least becoming increasingly visible – every day.

The next few weeks ma become very interesting indeed.

My Child Scored! Give Me Another Drink

There was something about the football game table. You know, the kind where you have little wooden footballers on sticks. Not that it was old and shoddy, but that it had ashtrays. Yes, plural. Not one, but four built-in ashtrays; one in each corner.

This is hardly anything that would make most people raise their eyebrows the way I did. But, having lived for many years in Sweden, I’m still used to the mix of athletics and smoking or drinking being a complete taboo. And when I say complete, I mean complete, man.

The picture was compounded by the fact that the battered but smoker-friendly football game table was – and still is – wasting away in a corner of the private pub that my eldest son’s football club has just by the side of the football pitch. There, the parents can happily sit and comfortably booze away, while their five- and six-year-olds struggle along in the October cold, rain and dark outside.

Such a mix of sports, very young children, alcohol and smoking will usually make most Swedes faint, and would have been completely inthinkable there. In fact, even having brewers sponsoring a football team – which is the standard procedure here – would have Swedes rioting outside, and serving alcohol on private premises where little children learn football would probably result in calls to the local police. To draw a comparison for any of you American readers, this would have been the equivalent of having a private adult film shop next to the soccer pitch.

Same thing when we are invited to the yearly parental meeting at the school which both our six-year-old and our four-year-old attend. The parents are usually served a welcome drink – we get a choice of wine, champagne, or juice – and can have a happy sip or two before touring our kiddies’ rooms and listening to their teachers.

Belgians think nothing of it. Swedes would have launched a full investigation. On Governmental level.

In fact, I was supposed to attend an event at a Swedish school tomorrow (I won’t, for other reasons, but that’s another story) which is completely and utterly aimed at anyone old enough to be of university age. Not a minor in sight, I can assure you. But on the invitation, the school had still found it necessary to print – in large, bold, capital letters:

“SMOKING IS FORBIDDEN WITHIN THE SCHOOL AREA!”

And this wasn’t even in Sweden, but in London.

Every country has its taboos, and every taboo has its reasons. The Swedish taboo surrounding alcohol comes from the fact that it is the country where you have to empty any bottle you take the topo off. I mean, when I read about my felow Britons complaining about the noise around pubs late at night, I just sigh and think “you ain’t seen nothing yet, pals”. Living close to the centre of a large town in Sweden, as we did before coming here in 2004, meant Ragnarök every Friday and Saturday evening. Noise ad nauseam, vomiting in the bushes, people urinating anywhere and everywhere, and hardly a sober person in sight. In a country where booze is only sold in restaurants and special state-owned shops, that is. Here, where it’s all sold freely at the supermarket, and we have five pubs within five minutes’ walking distance from where we live (it used to be six until just recently), you virtually never see anyone visibly intoxicated.

If anything, the Belgians take a more pragmatic stance.

“It’s our biggest source of income”, a friend and parent of another kid in the same football team told me when I raised the issue of the soccer pub.

“The main team plays in such a low division that there’s only about 100 spectators at the matches, but afterwards, everyone gathers together for a drink”, he said with a chuckle.

This Blog Would Be Illegal

This blog would be illegal. Not only in countries like China and Burma, where the totalitarian regimes utterly restrict personal freedom of speech. But in Italy, a Western democracy, if proposals put forward by premier Romano Prodi are adopted.

Yes, the very same Romano Prodi who used to be the President of the EU Commission.

He has now proposed far-going restrictions of Italians’ right to blog, which in a nutshell means that you will have to be registered, pay taxes, work for a publisher and under the supervision of a profesisonal journalist to have the right to blog.

This is utterly and obscenely outrageous.

I am a professional journalist and my blog would perhaps pass the test. But I would openly refuse to comply with such a ridiculpous law, because it is a blatant, naked and arrogant attack on the God-given right that forms the very foundation of any democracy anywhere: Freedom of speech.

Any democracy anywhere requires the right for people to freely form their opinions, in order to participate. It requires the freedom to advocate any standpoint, in order to form an opinion in others, and it requires the freedom to take part of any standpoint, in order to form an opinion of one’s own. It is the fundamental right given to us at birth, manifested in such a way that we are born with the capacity to speak, and the capacity for learning languages.

Blogging on the Internet is nothing more than an extension of your right to speak out with your mouth; it is the 21st century equivalent of standing on an overturned soapbox in a street corner or handing out leaflets.

Yes, it comes with a lot of rubbish, but it the quality of what is said would be the criteria for whether or not to allow freedom of speech, then the politicians would be the first to be forced to shut up.

Perhaps what upsets me the most is the sheer arrogance of the Italian plans. This time, they do not even bother to try to hide behind some alleged reason, be it the fight against terrorism, indecencies om the Net, or whatever the excuse for the day is. This time, they are openly sending the message to the citizens – or, should I say, to the subjects: Freedom of speech is not a right for the common man, it is a privilege for the chosen few.

What insolence!

Why not just go the whole way and do away with democracy altogether? Why not return to the feudal system straight away? Is that what is on the agenda in the long term?

You may wonder why I rage against something that is going on in a country where I do not live. I admit, I have not even been to Italy. But a loss of freedom anywhere is a loss of freedom everywhere.

Moreover, remember that Italy is a country on my doorstep. It is a founding and powerful member of the Europan Union. And the proposal, as I said, is being put forward by the previous EU Commission President.

What guarantees do I – or YOU – have that the same proposals won’t be put forward in our countries next time? What guarantees do we have that the next step won’t be attempting to introduce the same laws in the entire EU?

If you think this sounds ridiculous, remember that it would be easy for an Italian blogger to put her or his blog onto a server in any other EU country to try to circumvent this law from hell. That would easily give the Italian the government the excuse to start pushing for an EU-wide application of it, in order to uphold the Italian legislation. And then the police could soon be knocking on YOUR door because of something you have written on your computer.

If you agree with me that this is a terrifying perspective, straight from a book by George Orwell less than two decades after the fall of totalitarian regimes in Europe, then protest now.

While it is still legal. 

Separatist Riots In Belgium

The first separatist riots in the current Belgian crisis have taken place at a council meeting in Wezembeek-Oppem near Brussels, where a group of Flemish nationalist politicians and adherents to the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang stod up and shouted down a councillor who tried to speak in French. The council is officially Flemish, and though it nowadays has a French-speaking majority, all proceedings must bed held in Flemish. The rioters were forcibly removed by the police, and although there was an egg flying through the air, nobody has been reported injured.

But it gets worse. The Home Secretary of the Flemish regional government, Marino Keulen, has said he will overrule and nullify the appointments of mayors both in Wezembeek-Oppem as well as in Kraainem and Linkebeek, and will also repeal a few other decisions taken there. The reason is that French had been spoken during the preceding debate, reports De Morgen. That is forbidden under the language laws and gives the regional government, the equivalent of a State government in the US, the power to invalidate any decision where the wrong language has been spoken in the process.

Meanwhile, the Walloon politician Didier Reynders, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister in the former government and one of the most high-profile French-speaking politicians, has said he could imagine some concessions in the sensitive government formation talks, which has immediately prompted French-speakers to brand him as betraying their cause.

The case continues…

Posted in Belgium. 1 Comment »

It’s Official, I’m Rich

I’m among the world’s richest people. To be specific, I’m number 318,061,610 – at least if you trust the calculations at http://www.globalrichlist.com/

Makes you think, doesn’t it.

Posted in EU. 1 Comment »

Ghosts In The Machine

One of the more eerie things that happen whenever EU ministers meet is the Commisson spokespersons’ habit of suddenly materialising in the press room, seemingly out of nowhere. You’re sitting there by your computer, deeply immersed in one important world problem or another (such as whom to poke next on Facebook), and suddenly you glance up and there they are, surrounded by a group of journalists frantically taking notes.

You quickly get up and join the crowd and find yourself getting a number of bits and pieces of inside information from the meeting itself, which is held behind closed doors. The Commission spokespeople are present at the meetings, and can therefore give tell you exactly what is going on. Those spokespeople who have worked as journalists themselves before switching jobs are the best, since they’re used to verbatim note-taking. Their information is one of the reasons why it is always better to cover the councils on location, rather than trying to do it from home.

However, you can’t help but wonder exactly where they come from. They literally seem to crawl out of the woodwork (or concrete, rather), or materialise out of thin air. Do they have a Star Trek-emulating beamer, able to just zap them into any place? Or are they in fact astral bodies? Are they at all present at the meetings, as I have assumed so far, or are they just invisibly hovering around the delegates, reading their notes or perhaps even their minds? Are they spying over my shoulder as I write this? Or do they only manifest themselves when enough journalists collectively start longing for some news? Are we thus able to invoke them on other occasions too?

The latter would be of a particular advantage, because they’re never there otherwise when you really need them.

Pole Postion

“Who’s representing Poland?” is the standing question here at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries council in Luxembourg. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows.

Poland had a general election on Sunday, and the ruling party’s majority was wiped out by a landslide victory for the opposition. Of course, there is no new government in place yet – it seems as if there will be coalition negotiations – but on Tuesday, Poland is supposed to take part in discussions over fishery quotas.

The problem, as I have already written in this blog, is that Poland is already allowing itself a virtually unlimited quota, as the previous government refused to stop pirate fisheries, and Poland is supposed to be a key player at this meeting. But it also seems that Poland will have a new and more EU-friendly government, and the talk here is that the other member states wouldn’t want to come down too hard on such a government for fear of alienating them.

Meanwhile, a delegate confided that the black-market fisheries is probably a far bigger threat to e.g. cod stocks than the regular fish quotas, overly generous as they may seem.  So something has to be done – but who is going to do it?

On a more positive note, delegates have had troubles hiding their joy at the change of government in Poland. “Yess!” is a word that probably describes the sentiment among many in an accurate way.

Signal To Noise

I just woke everyone up here at the press centre in the Luxembunker.

It’s some time after 19.00 in the evening as I write this, and the journalists here are summing up today’s events at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. That woldn’t take very long, so the calm spreading out here is considerable, and most of us will soon be retreating to our hotel rooms.

That is the kind of nocturnal setting against which I managed to produce today’s biggest noise here. I have had some problems with my computer, which doesn’t want to correspond with the headset I use to make calls via Skypa. So while searching the computer for a solution, I did the mistake of turning on a volume control that I knew from earlier on that I should have kept set to zero.

To cut a long story short, the result – when I some time later unplugged my headset – was a monumental feedback noise. A sharp and penetrating signal sound that would have made most people think that the fire alarmhad gone off. And to make matters worse – my computer froze in that state.

Dozens and dozens of pairs of eyes were staring at me as I frantically tried to kill or muffle the sound. I even considered shoving the computer into its bag and rushing outside, but maybe the security guards would have had some suspicions about that.

Eventually, I was able to quiet the computer by physically ripping the battery out. I then tried very hard to pretend as if it was raining, which has its difficulties when you’re indoors.

Well, at least I woke them up.

Playing With The Travelling Band

The travelling band commonly known as the European Union this month has its minsterial meetings in Luxembourg again (yes, indeed at the ghastly Luxembunker pictured to the right), and I will be playing along Monday and Tuesday as a reporter at the Agriculture and Fisheries council. (I wish I were playing with a real travelling band instead, especially when reading about old friends doing exactly that, but that’s another story.)

On Tuesday, the ministers are supposed to discuss fisheries, a common source of discontent not only because the ministers consistently fail to agree on quotas small enough to actually give fish stocks a chance to survive, but also because there has been widespread pirate fishing that compound the problem.

Notably from Poland, where the government has openly said that it does not intend to do one whit about it, because it believes that the fears for fish stocks are exagerrated. In short, they are allowing themselves an unlimited quota on the expense on every other nation around the Baltic. Marine harvest state terrorism is a concept that one is tempted to use.

However, don’t expect the Polish delegation to receive more than a symbolic thrashing about it, because Poland held general elections on Sunday and it seems that there is a huge possibility that there will be a change of guard there. And then, the process has to start all over again, with a new government which can always claim that it shouldn’t have to live up to the previous one’s agreements.

In the meantime, the EU is rattling its sabres (all two and a half of them), insisting that it will take deterrent measures against fishermen who can’t keep their tackle under control. Draconian measures are being considered, including a black list – a piece of paper listing of offending vessels – and a ban on selling catches that have bene landed outside the quota.

I bet the Pirates of the Baltic are quaking with fear.

Grave Men

I just read on Reuters that a cemetery in Australia is training its gravediggers to save lives of mourners who collapse from grief and may need first aid. (Read the full story here.)

Excuse me… but isn’t that putting yourself out of business – or more frankly, digging your own grave?

Wise Men Say

Lo and behold, the EU leaders actually did manage to agree on a new constitution sorry, Reform Treaty. Already on Thursday night, that is, not, as I erroneously wrote in a previous blog post, during this weekend. I must have expected negotiations to drag on into the unknown hours, as always, but this time they were finished already at 2 am.

That’s such a stupid macho thing to do, by the way. Do they really think that we are impressed by them squabbling on into the night, emerging red-eyed at some hour no-one can imagine? Especially since they usually don’t get started before late in the afternoon? Is it supposed to be better to negotiate at night, and look tough and uncompromising, than to get some sleep and take discussions with all your mental capacities in place?

The current negotiations about the future Belgian government have been dancing to the same tune, speaking of that. Every other day, we are told on the news that an agreement has been made after hard negotiations at 3 am… 3.30 am… and so on. RUBBISH! I don’t give a toss for any agreement that’s constructed at that hour. Don’t try to tell me that it’s supposed to be better than anything hammered out by people who are awake and alert. And bearing in mind that nocturnal negotiations are usually staged to look nocturnal, when they didn’t have to be, it’s all such a ridiculous attempt at looking potent to the public that it makes my stomach turn.

Anyway. I’m not going to immerse myself in the details of the new constitution sorry, Reform Treaty – there is already, as always, an excellent account of it on EUObserver which you can read by clicking here. However, I do note that in the margin of things, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s idea of setting up a panel of “wise men”, to examine the future of the EU in the long to very long term, has been all but dismissedby EU Commissioner Olli Rehn.

I quite understand him. Where in the EU machinery would you actually find any wise men?

Polish Parliament

From 1652 to 1791, the Polish parliament, the Sejm, practised what is known as liberum veto. Each deputy had the right to stop a decision single-handedly, and decisions could only be taken unanimously. This is usually considered one of the reasons why Poland was eventually defeated and parted. In Swedish, this has led to the generic saying “Polish Parliament” (polsk riksdag) as a by-word for any type of anarchy or chaos.

Funny, then, that it is the Polish leadership that is now trying to resuscitate a simliar principle on European Union level. But at this weekend’s informal EU Summitin Lisbon, which is supposed to unify the Union’s leaders around the EU’s new constitution  sorry, Reform Treaty, the Polish twin leaders are bringing a proposal that small minorities should be able to block decisions.

That is probably an attempt that will be applauded on some British editorial pages. However, the backlash on the longer term is of course that once the impotence of such a system is becoming evident, there is a great possibility that there will be calls for even more power to majority votes than today.

However, the question still remains whether or not the constitution  sorry, Reform Treaty will eventually be adopted at all, since it requires the signature of the heads of government – and Belgium still doesn’t have one.

It’s not due to be signed this time, but rather at the December official summit. We shall see whether or not there is a Belgian govermnent in place by then.

If I Only Had Some Eau De Cologne

I’m back after the Cologne experience… half doubting that I actually made it.

I was supposed to get up at an hour yesterday morning previously unknown to man, and take the bus. Well, I got up alright, but then my stomach decided to ask me for an encounter of a kind which will be of no interest to you, I hope, that kept me from getting to the bus.

I tried waking my wife up to drive me to the Metro, but to no avail. Few people have the same capacity for comatose sleep in the wee hours, and it as just as good that I was unable to contact her because who knows what ditch she would have landed in on the way back. But luckily, my neighbour was going to work very early that very morning, and I htched a ride with him to a suitable bus stop, only vatching the last possible bus to the Gare du Midi station by throwing myself across the heavy rush-hour traffic of a thoroughfare in complete darkness.

I hurried into the train station and realised that I needed to withdraw some money as well. Racing around the entire station area  revealed the ONE cash dispenser (ATM) in the entire station area at the diametrically oposite side of it to where I was. I did make it, strangely enough, and even had a few minutes left to walk back towards the platform at a normal pace… only to glance up at the informaition board that my train had been CANCELLED.

“This doesn’t begin very well”, I thought.

Complaining at the information desk, of course, was completely pointless. Even an apology was beyond their imagination.

“It’s the Germans who haven’t sent us the train. You’ll have to complain in Germany”, they said, shrugging their sholuders and raising their hands in the gesture, which I have come to detest, which means “I don’d know and I don’t care“.

They did, however, book me and all the other passengers fro that train onto the next one. Two trainfuls of passengers on one train, thus. You imagine the rest.

At least, I did get some work done while waiting, and the next train, which was one and a half hours later, was only delayed another 20 minutes. (“Signal failure”, they call it. I don’t believe one whit of that. I’ve heard “signal failure” being blamed so many times on different trains in different coutries that I believe it’s the standard international rail excuse for anything from the driver being late due to hangover, to the train needing to stop to let the guard go buy a doughnut).

Anyway.  Thus two hours late, I tried to break into the Kölnermesse. Which was easier said than done,because the entire fair has moved a bit (I kid you not) and the whole area is a huge construction site. When I eventually found the entrance, I realised I had entered on the opposite side to where one of the two press centres was. Which was where I needed to start.

“OK”, I thought, “I’ll just look through some of the halls on the way, I have to do that anyway”.

Now, the Kölnermesse is the size of Wisconsin, with about 17 exhibition halls each large enough to accommodate the collected fleet of British Airway’s aircraft. “Some halls” means trekking rather than walking – with my portable newsroom across one shoulder.

Correspondingly flat-footed, I eventually reached the press centre. It was closed. The other one was at the diametrically opposite side to the north of the area.

Same kind of expedition once again, this time across and through different halls, getting lost in about every one of them because they have changed the entire layout logic of the fair. All the time thinking what on Earth I was going to write about all this.

I did eventually reach the other press centre where I could start working, with feet the size of Yorkshire.

That is where I was reached by the news, from my wife, that we had received some unjust fines from the Flemish authorities for services we are not supposed to pay for.

Like I said – it didn’t start very well.

However. I decided to make the best out of the situation, and work myself around the area by focussing on the Swedish exhibitors it was my main task to cover. It worked. There was a lot of good and interestng material evolving from there, and I felt increasingly encouraged by the minute.

Last on yesterday’s programme, as I said, was a Swedish event in a restaurant off the Rhine (or maybe more accurately on it), across the river and well away from the trade fair area. I did reach it on time thanks only to riding a bus across the Hohenzollern bridge, which I so loudly scorned in a previuls blog entry as being the most unnnecessary ride etc etc (I did walk across the bridge on my way to the fair, though), and taking a taxi the last bit. I carefluuy calculated how long I would be able to stay before having to leave to catch the last train home.

However… I never had a good grade in maths.

I left the event in good time, I thought, and asked the staff to help me call a taxi just to be sure. That’s when I discovered that calling a taxi in a city crammed full with people visiting the same trade fair as I had was slightly challenging. To say the least.

They could not reach the switchboard.

I waited a little too long… and then decided to start walking, It was longer than I had expected. It was dark. I was loking for taxis to flag down – but there were none. Oh yes, there’s one. He didn’t see me. It’s dark and I’m wearing black. Oh dear, I’m standing in the middle of the road trying to catch the cab and there’s a car coming straight at me. Better jump out of the way.

The train was about to leave NOW.

I ran with all the heavy bagage that you accumulate at a trade fair, soaked in rivers of sweat, gushing sweat that would have raised the Rhine water level by a few feet. A glance to the left – there’s a taxi leavng a restaurant and it’s for hire! I all but threw myself across its bonnet (hood), ripped the door open, and landed in the passenger seat without looking if anybody else was there. In fact, by then, I wouldn’t have cared; I would have just sat on the lap of anybody who would have happened to be there and simply hijacked the taxi.

“HAUPTBAHNHOF BITTE, SCHNELL, SCHNELL!!!!” I roared, in a tone of voice borrowed from the Captain in the marvellous film “Das Boot” where he is trying to get his submarine to escape heavy bombardment from Allied aircraft, and slammed a fiver in the driver’s hand. It had the desired effect, for he took off through the Cologne night traffic at a speed that somehow made me think of Henri Paul, Dodi al-Fayed and Lady Di. Especially since I, for once, wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, in order to be able to throw myself out of the cab.

Throw myself out I did, indeed, and zoomed into the station,  fellow passengers elbowed to the right and left in my wake. It was departure time. Where’s the train? I can’t see it listed! Quick, is there a train number on the ticket? Where is the ticket? Oh for crying out loud, I can’t find the ticket!

I looked up through wet and misty glasses at the announcement board. Oh, there the train was. With an accompanying notice.
“Train to Brussels delayed a few minutes. We apologize.”

Apologize?!?! I would have kissed their feet.

I have very vague memories of the train ride itself. Only that I landed at home very late at night, to a nice cup of tea and the company of my Mrs.

Am I the star of some candid camera reality show or something?

…”Bubba Shot The Jukebox”?

Some times, even I wonder how I come across some of the weirder sites in my Bookmarks list. Here’s a true and hilarious gem that I found recently:

http://www.downstream.sk.ca/country1.htm

“I Gave Her the Ring, and She Gave Me the Finger”… classic.

Across The Great Divide

Swedish writer and former foreign correspondent Herman Lindqvist once claimed that there is a time difference of about three hours in Europe – not between east and west, but between north and south.

An astronomical impossibility as this may seem, it is still a fully observable cutural phenomenon. For while the Portuguese have their breakfast, the Swedes have their lunch. While the Norwegians have their breakfast, the Italians sleep. And while the Finns put on their pajamas, the Spaniards work, and work, and work, and eventually party a bit into the night.

I should not be surprised, then, to discover how the SMS messages that the European Union’s rotating Presidency countries send out to Brussels correspondents, about various media-related issues, suddenly started arriving about three hours later than usual once the Portuguese took the helm in July. While text messages were strictly confined to office hours – Germanic office hours, that is – during the preceding Finnish and German presidencies, it happens every now and then that messages drop late at night from the Portuguese. Once I got a message about some statement or another as I was going to bed. And today I had an invitation to a “Presidency IGC debriefing” time stamped at 19:41 – on a Sunday evening, that is.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian companies ooze vitriloc remarks about laziness and mañana culture as their calls to Mediterranian business go unanswered due to siesta. Only to have similar accusations cast after them about lazy pampered welfare state sluggards when their counterparts in Southern Europe try in vain to reach them to do business when it’s only eight o’clock in the evening.

A few moments each day, they actually do all work at the same time. Which is when the Britons let their English lion maul the new EU Reform Treaty for being a stealth Constitution that will covertly wring the ruling scepter out of old proud Britannia’s hands – where only Sun and Daily Mail editors still see it held, by the way – while the French pound their fists and demand that Britain starts taking its responsibility and pay its member fees in full, rather than chicken out from their obligations, so that the new Eastern European member states’ farmers can enjoy subsidies that will enable them, too, to sit on their hands and watch their fields become overgrown, just like their Western colleagues, while cereal prices smash through the ceiling and skyrocket further out into the universe for lack of supply to meet the demand.

Maybe it’s just as well after all that they’re all kept apart a little.

(Note to Swedish readers: This blog post is partly written in an homage style to the late great Torsten Ehrenmark.) 

Bank Holiday

Oh my. I’ve just paid the rent.

Yes, it’s late, but there is an explanation: I lost my bank card.

Some time ago, my Belgian bank changed its security solution. Nowadays, you need to feed your ordinary bank card into a little thingy, where you punch in codes hither and thither and get other codes back and forth to access your Internet bank account, and eventually, after pressing every button at least twice, you’re in. It’s all very clever and much better than the variant they used to have – and so complex it’s probably foolproof – so I’m not complaining at all.

However, it does require that you have your bank card. And there’s where the fools may prove the foolproof permeable.

Last Friday, I was going to take care of the rent and a few other things. (Yes, that was late too, but there are reasons for that as well, involving transfer of funds between different banks in different countries that I have to do every month.) However, one of those “other things” was to pay my eldest son’s football club fee,

I realised late Friday afternoon – no, it’s more correct to say that it struck me full force very late Friday afternoon – that I would have to pay the fee during that same day, or else he would not be able to play the next  match, for insurance reasons. As I had promised he would. There are some things you just can’t explain to a six-year-old, so I had to dash off to the bank before closing time.

I just about made it, storming into the bank, fumbling all over their enhanced cash dispensers (ATMs) with payment capacity, where you also have to insert your card to pay your bills. On spaghetti legs, I slunk out of the bank, thinking that I’d pay the rent over the Internet when I came home, and drove off to do some other errands.

But when I got to the shop around the corner from where we live, I realised that my bank card was missing. I left my wife and kids there and sped off back to the bank, hoping to catch some staff or other even after closing time, probably breaking every known traffic rule on the way.

I caught the staff just as they were on their way home.

“Sorry, Sir, the machine has probably eaten your card if you forgot to take it, and we can’t access it because of the time lock. Come back on Monday morning at 9 am.”

Nobody had found my card anywhere else in the bank and handed it in, so there was a 90 per cent chance it was safely tucked away in the machine’s belly. But what if someone had indeed found it and was going to have a merry weekend on my expense?

I called the Card Stop number that every cash dispenser has posted. In the middle of my call, my cell phone credit dried up.

And I was cut off.

Back into the car, speeding back the same way I came, probably breaking every leftover traffic rule that I’d forgotten to violate last time. Quick rush up the stairs, to throw myself on the phone, to the amusement of my neighbour who happened to walk by just as I darted in from the car with my hair on end and sweat spurting out of every pore.

I managed to block the card, and eventually reunited with my wife and kids, who were reaching boiling point at the shop. And after a nail-biting weekend, my card sure enough turned up safe and sound at the bank on Monday morning. Without having been raided. Now all I had to do was to wait for a new one, so I could access my bank account and pay my rent.

“It will probably be sent to you by Wednesday”, the bank people told me. OK, a bit late, but fair enough.

Wednesday came. No card. Thursday came. Still no card. Friday came. No card in sight.

On Friday afternoon, I passed by the bank to ask. Sure enough, the card had arrived – mailed to the bank.

As I finaly logged into my bank account – remember, only able to do so by having my new card – I saw that there was a message from my bank. It read:

“Your KBC Bank Card XXX-XXXXXXX-XX XXXX in the name of JONATHAN NEWTON and linked to account XXX-XXXXXXX-XX can be collected from your KBC BANK NEGENMANNEKE bank branch from 12/10/2007 on. You can either collect the card yourself at the bank branch or autorize someone else who already has power of attorney over your account to do so, using the form of attorney. (see annex to account statements) Ask for it the next time you stop in at the KBC bank branch because the card you have now will not work as of 19/12/2007. If you have already collected your card, please disregard this message.”

Thank you very much, bank. Now let me ask you how you expect me to read this message without that very card, which I need to log on to the account where the message is posted.

Chat: Anuga, Choo Choo

Pardon me boy, is this the Anuga Choo Choo? is probably a question I could ask Monday, as I will be taking the train to Cologne, Germany, to cover the Anuga food fair. It used to be even more so in the city itself, as exhibitors’ and accredited journalists’ ID badges also entitled them to free rides on local public transport. The train from the Köln Deutz station, where the Kölnermesse is situated, to the Köln Hauptbahnhof central station could really be called the Anuga Choo Cho in those days – I have spent one or two trips there crammed together with other visitors like sardines in a tin can.

However, that trip is one of the most unnecessary in the known universe, since the two stations are just a bridge apart, and since the walk across the Hohenzollern bridge is a very pleasant one with a beautiful view of the city, the Kölner Dom and the Rhine – especially this time of the year, if we are as lucky with the weather as always, with sunshine and sparkling autumn-coloured trees adding to the picture.

Maybe it was the aesthetics of it all that prompted the arrangers to scrap the free rides, I know not. Or maybe the fair had squeezed public transport to its full capacity. Judging from the hotel situation, that might very well be the case, because when I started looking for hotel rooms some time ago, everything was booked. There was one or two suites at the Hilton left, but I realised it would be difficult to get my employer to pay for that since they cost like EUR 500 per night – and I would only lie awake all night in such an expensive hotel room anyway, worrying about what each second costs.

You may wonder why on Earth I need a hotel room in Cologne, which is only a few hours away from Brussels. But I have to cover an event Monday evening that starts 18.30 and goes on into the wee hours, and the last train for Brussels leaves at 19.44.

So, the only alternative being waiting at the Hauptbahnhof until the morning train, I will gamble on being able to scamper off to my train in time.

Wish me good luck.

And The Eyes Of The World Are Watching Now

The EU Commission, the EU Presidency and the Council of Europe today spoke out as united against the death penalty under all circumstances.

“Death penalty is against human dignity. We want to give visibility to the efforts of the many Non-Governmental Organisations and individuals who strive, day after day, towards the abolition of the death penalty”, said EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, while Commission Vice President Franco Frattini added:

“The death penalty is a wild and revengeful parody of justice. Today, we can affirm with pride that death penalty has no place within the European model and confirm our commitment to promote universal abolition”.

I have two words for this: “Hear, hear”.

For those of you so inclined, I will add a fill-out-the-blank from Amnesty’s web site: “In 2004, 97 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, the Viet Nam and” … which country?

I leave that to you to figure out, as well as the answer to the question whether or not that has been efficient in deterring crime in that country, compared to crime rates in other similar countries with no capital punishment.

Wait, I’m Just Going To Finish Laughing

Yesterday, the Swedish Minister for Enterprise, Deputy Premier etc etc Maud Olofsson was going to chat online with the readers of the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. The chat was scheduled to 13.00. However, when people at the local newspaper Västerbottens-Kuriren read about that, they realised that this was exactly when the minister had been interviewed by their reporters. In her home in the North of Sweden. That is, hundreds of miles away from Aftonbladet’s newsroom.

It turned out to have been Ms Olofsson’s press secretary who had responded to the readers’ questions. In the minister’s name. Claiming to be the minister. The minister, or is it her astral body? Photo by Johanna Jansson.

Aftonbladet is furious and has demanded (and received) an apology for having been “fooled”, as the editor in charge of the online edition puts it. Now there’s an interesting flip of mind, by the way, as the paper in question has a solid, dubious track record for fooling its readers every day, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway. The story could have ended there, but has since been compounded by the press secretary’s hilarious attempts to explain the whole matter away. Asked by the media magazine Dagens Media “But it wasn’t Maud Olofsson chatting”, she delivers the following gem for a response:

“Indirectly, it was, but of course I was the one pressing the keys. But it was Maud’s words”.

New Agers usually use expressions such as “chanelling” for this phenomena, whereby dupes are automatically writing messages from alleged spirits. But little did I know that such powers had also been extended to Cabinet members and their press secretaries.

This, though, opens up unexpected possibilities for eco-friendly government: Instead of jetting all the ministers in from their constituencies, just put a press secretary with psychic powers in the same room as the Prime Minister. “I now invoke the Defence Minister…” And what about the EU circus, where ministers, officials, MEPs and assorted bureaucrats are shuttled and shuffled across the European chessboard on a daily basis? They could just meet by telepathy, even doing away with the need for energy-intensive computers.

Remember where you read it first.

Free Burma


Free Burma!

Where The Streets Have No Names

This morning, I had to go see a specialist optician to discuss various aspects of my triple eye malfunctions. Now that may sound as a contradiction in terms, to say that you are going to see an optician, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway. I was told that the optician was located in Boulevard St. Michel, and that I’d reach it by alighting fom the Metro at Place Montgomery. (Now there’s an interesting factoid, by the way. Brussels proudly produces both a gargantuan roundabout named after World War II British field marshal Bernard Montgomery – with the man as a life-sized statue – as well as a long thoroughfare road named after Winston Churchill. When will the capital of the two gentlemen’s native country rival that?)

Up from the Metro I thus emerged, having very little idea exactly which of the roads was the one I looked for, let alone which side of the roundabout I was. Half knowing that it was futile, I looked for road signs on the houses.

But sure enough, as usual, there were none. There were two large roads to choose among, both leading out from a third. Thus, a total of four different buildings and six different walls to hang at least one street name sign. But, as is only too common in this city, there was not one. Not ONE.

As you already know, I have no sense of direction because I’ve been going in so many directions that I can’t keep track of them all, and besides, as I said, I was going to the EYE DOCTOR, for crying out loud. Thus: Lost.

It’s happened to me quite often, that I’ve been driving around town and ended up in an area where I’ve needed to know the name of the street I’m driving down – or at least any of those crossing it – to answer mankind’s two eternal questions:

1) Where am I?

2) How do I get out of here?

In other words, you cannot be sure to find your way around even if you have a map, because using a map reqiures you to know where you are in the first place. And EVERYONE I know who come by car to visit us here in this town gets lost on the way at least once.

This is something I find mind-boggling. Why ever cannot the City of Brussels be bothered to put up some signs stating the names of at least major roads at crossroads and intersections? Can’t they afford it? Or have they already sent out a crew armed with signs and ladders that has been lost somewhere in the urban jungle, unable to find its own way around because there are no signs in the first place?

GPS devices are selling like hotcakes, judging from what I see in my local stores and their promotion leaflets. No wonder.

As for my attempts to find my appointment, there was a 50-50 chance to end up on the right road simply by just starting to walk down one, and of course I chose the wrong one. But the street numbers – at least they have those – quickly told me that it wasn’t likely to be the right one. Luckily, a few metres down the other road, there was a police patrol that I could ask. (I was thus forced to actually ask for directions, even though being a guy. Maybe that’s why I get so upset by the lack of signs?)

But when the friendly doctor asked me with a smile if it was difficult to find the surgery… all I could produce was a polite “ehrm, no, not really”.

Maybe I have myself to blame for being a coward.

YMCA In Finnish

Just when you thought you’d seen it all… here’s a fine example of what state TV entertainment used to look like in the Nordic countries a few decades ago:

The real highlight comes about one minute into the clip… I shall say no more…

Doomsday Clock

If I were able to do any advanced web programming, I’d probably throw together some sort of web-based plagiarism of the famous Doomsday Clock by now, trying to predict how close Belgium is to its final moments as a unified nation.

Had I done so already, I had probably set it back a few minutes during the weekend, as it has seemed that the current governmental crisis would reach some sort of conclusion after all, or that the imminent threat of a split would be avoided. In an e-mail to a friend, I listed a few reasons why I thought it wouldn’t happen after all, and the signals from the negotiations have been mildly positive lately.

However, yesterday and today, I would have cranked such a clok forward a few minutes again, upon the news that the former Prime Minister of the regional government in Flanders, Yves Leterme, has been asked for the second time since the elections to form a national government. Last time, he utterly failed to persuade his French-speaking counterparts to agree on more devolution of powers to the regional assemblies, sending the formation of a national government crashing into a brick wall.

During the last month, his party colleaue Herman Van Rompuy has been appointed by the King to survey the situationm, and has held talks with everyone involved. On Saturday, he went to the King’s summer house in the Ardennes with his recommendation, which was to give Yves Leterme a second chance.

That means everything is basically back to square one. If Yves Leterme’s party CD&V backs down from its demands for more regional autonomy, which the Walloons fear is a way to break Flanders away by stealth, it will face widespread disappointment among its voters, because it went to the election promising to fight for just that. Moreover, one reason why they pushed that issue so hard was to defuse the openly Flemish nationalist and Flemish independence party Vlaams Belang. Backing off from its devolution demands will mean a real risk of voters being driven back into the arms of Vlaams Belang, meaning that the demands for regional autonomy or even an independent Flanders will return with a vengeance in the next general elections 2011, and make things even more difficult to master then.

On the other hand, if Yves Leterme and CD&V does not back down from those demands, there is a real risk that the Walloon parties will repeat their “Non” from last time, again making the formation of a government impossible.

“There is no agreement yet. There is not even any agreement yet to reach an agreement”, an unnamed negotiator sighs in De Standaard. 

The latest talk has been that the parties that will be trying to stitch a government together will try to take the difficult issues in stages, solving them one by one as they go along. However, that is exactly the kind of stalling strategy that triggered the Swedish governmental crisis in 1994, when the unresolved issue of the Öresund bridge blew up in the coalition partners’ faces. And as for the trickiest of them all, the queston of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency, there is already a court order basically saying that that issue should have been resolved yesterday.

The only solutions would be to call a new election, which is unlikely since the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde fight probably makes that constitutonally impossible, or to split the country. Unless, that is, Yves Leterme is able to put together a patchwork of loosley connected ideas, conflicting agendas and barely compatible solutions into something that, with a few shovels of imagination, could pass for a programme.

But then again, that shouldn’t be impossible. After all… that’s exactly how Windows XP is constructed.

Posted in Belgium. 1 Comment »

Beer

I couldn’t help but post this video clip here as well, which I first found on my boss’s blog. Absolutely hilarious!
(EDIT: Silly WordPress doesn’t let me embed the player… click on this link instead: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/833113/miracle_beer_diet/ )