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.