Winding Down

The EU Summit that starts today will probably be the beginning of a general wind down period for the EU as a whole, a bit differently than the EU leaders had expected.

Everyone had already started talking about this period after the August break – when all EU work grinds to a halt – as the general run-up to the year 2009, when both a new EU Parliament and a new EU Commission is to be selected. Logically, neither body would have any interest in starting any new huge undertakings as they would not know whether or not they would be able to finish them.

Some Commissioners will likely re-appear. Chairman José Manuel Barroso, for example, makes little secret of his wish to be re-appointed, and seems to have enough political support from e.g. Germany to see a second term in office. And Ms Androulla Vasiliou is so new on the job that she has little time to mess things up, at least, enough to be removed.

Others will certainly not. Vice president Margot Wallström, for instance, has made it clear that she is not seeking re-election. That is to all intents and purposes a preventive statement in order to save her the embarrassment of being ousted, not because she is doing a poor job – on the contrary, she is generally held in high esteem – but because she is a Social Democrat. So was Sweden’s only other Commissioner to date, Anita Gradin. But the current Swedish government is not. They will be little inclined, to say the least, to continue nominating representatives of their main political arch rivals, especially since they won the last election with promises including a reform of the nomination process to public top jobs, where Social Democrats – who have held governmental power for all but eleven of the last 76 years – for some reason have had a notorious habit of being appointed.

I’d be rather surprised if they didn’t put Carl Bildt in there instead, but I’ve been wrong before.

However, apart from that general slowdown, the current Summit will have to throw all plans to address pressing current issues such as galloping food and oil prices out the window, and instead embark on another endless crisis management tour in the wake of Ireland’s no to the Lisbon Treaty.

Another deadlock, from which there is no known escape, just before the slowdown time, while interest rates are creeping upwards, economy downwards, and stagflation is looming around the corner. Not to mention what to do with the EU’s ambitious climate targets, which might help delay global warming for a few years (until China’s and India’s emissions have made up for the balance), but will eat into the world’s already scarce food resources and continue to trigger famine, especially in poor countries. And I haven’t even started with the need to do something about the EU’s gigantic Common Agriculture Policy in order to make it help feed us all instead of just making matters worse.

This is when Brussels would have needed to take some tough decisions. But, sorry to say, don’t hold your breath.

Where Do We BEGIN?

At last, at last, at last! The EU and the Cty of Brussels has decided to give the EU quarters east of the Brussels city centre a facelift, cleaning up the area around, among others, the Berlaymonster (the EU Commission’smain building) and Justus Lipsius (the stone sarcophagus where ministers meet).

For this purpose, they have announced a competition, open for anyone with bright idea on how to liven up this stone desert, choking on the exhaust from the thousands of cars on the two eight-lane highways that plough through the district.

I wrote about this when the idea was presented in September, but here are a few new modest proposals from yours sincerely:

  • Get rid of the traffic.
  • Continue to pull down the old ugly shoeboxes for offices and build something nice instead.
  • Paint the old facades in something else than dirt-grey.
  • Get rid of some of the slum-like buildings from ages past that still litter the district.
  • Shut the lights off along Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat if you are serious about cutting CO2 emissions and setting an example in that work.

and finally…

  • Shock yourselves dramatically, and put in one or two GREEN spaces there for a change

This last item is probably the most important. The Belgian idea of “wildlife” is to plant some grass in a flower pot and put it out on the pavement (sidewalk), but so as not to inflict too much of a wilderness survival trip feeling, there must be 6-7 pubs and ample car parking immediately surrounding it. Consequently, the only green you see downtown are the pharmacies’ signs, and especially this time of the year, you feel dying from chlorophyll deficit. There have been a few new open spaces created when they refurbished the old Berlaymonster, but these have been carefully paved over so as not to offer any unnecessary vegetation, and are in either case wind holes that one quickly hurries across in search for shelter.

But then again, everybody knows that you have to be stark raving mad to become a city planner. So please… take the chance to draw something creative.

Wrong Tape

I stumbled upon an exhibition today, with pieces of art all made from gaffa tape (duct tape).

It was in the main waiting hall at Brussels’ south station, Gare du Midi / Zuidstation, the one most horrible public building this side of Pyongyang. (No, sorry, I take that back; even the North Koreans couldn’t have come up with the idea of building a train station so as to look like a bunker and put in such an amount of lighting inside that you could be wearing night vision goggles and still not see a thing. But that’s beside the point).

There, I discovered when hovering around while waiting for a bus, they have set up an exhibition in the name of charity, with everything made from gaffa tape. Including a life-sized sculpture of a deer on crutches, a poignant argument in the debate on road safety for animals and people, I was led to understand.

I agree with those who keep writing on the forum “If you can’t fix it with Gaffa tape, you haven’t used enough” on Facebook, a forum where I am a proud member, that “Gaffa tape is the force: it has a dark side, and a light side, and it holds the universe together”, having been involved in music and sound engineering since I was so high. But art made from Gafa tape? Hrm.

But what occurred to me most was the fact that such an exhibition took place right here. In Brussels, of all places, I believe it would be more fitting to have an exhibition with pieces of art all made from Red Tape.

7-Eleven

My boss just wrote on his blog that a 7-Eleven is coming to the small Swedish town where he lives.

I want a 7-Eleven here in Brussels, too. But there isn’t one in the whole country.

As I’ve probably mentioned, shop hours are quite surprising in what aspires to be the capital of Europe. Everything is closed on Sundays, holidays, and long weekends, with only a few very notable exceptions. If you’ve forgotten to do your shopping, you could easily end up in a sort of wildlife survival experience in your apartment.

And don’t even think about dashing into a shop that happens to be open at the very last minute before closing time. A shop closing at, say, 7pm means that its staff reserves the fight to leave at 7pm. At our local supermarket, they post armed guards (no joking) at the doors about fifteen minutes before closing, to make sure that no last-minute shoppers will sneak in and force the staff to work a few moments’ overtime. Arguing with the guards that opening hours mean opening hours is no idea. I’ve tried.

7-Elevens and their like do not exist. There are a few “night shops”, though, which you even might find aftere some countless hours of driving around, which may be alright if all you need is a vat of over-sugared soft drink or cigarettes, but that’s it.

Quite frankly, I fail to understand the logic. Supermarkets are open all day, usually from 9am, when everybody is at work and have no time to go shopping. Being one of the notable exceptions to confirm the rule, I’ve often snuck in at our local supermarket around then after taking the kids to school, to get one or two things for breakfast or so. There are a few pensioners, one or two other people, and that’s it, staff sitting idly at the tills. Whereas when people do have time to go shopping, in the evenings and during the weekends, the shops are closed.

Sunny Portugal

Portugal is trying to put on a charm offensive after being slammed by numbers for insisting on flying all the EU leaders – and Gordon Brown – to Lisbon yesterday just to put their names on a document.

Or so it seems, at least. The Portuguese Presidency is trying to woo journalists here at the EU Smmit’s Press Centre, where I am writing this, by handing out Christmas presents. Everyone gets a windproof jacket with the legend “eu2007.pt” in large letters across the back, unusually enough, together with a book about Portuguese points of interest. Supposedly intended to make us Brussels-based reportes sit around in the standard Belgian winter weather of fog, dark, and ice water pouring from a grey, grey sky, and dream about an Algarve getaway, no doubt.

Quite unusual for a gift, actually. Normally, the Presidencies at most hand out straps that you are supposed to hang your press badge on,  or something of the same 1/magnitude.

Moreover, this afternoon, they have promised to “close with a bang”, as a text message described it some moments ago.

“The Pres. invites you for a Portuguese Xmas cake and a sparkling frong 14h30 at the press centre/main hall”, the message read.

As far as the jackets are concerned, you could always suspect that they just had an extra stockpile lying around that they couldn’t get rid of before ending their presidency. If the same goes for the cake remains to be seen in a few moments – I shall be back with a report.

However, to prove that I have not been bought by this bribery attempt, let me direct you to this wonderful butchery of the Lisbon signing madness, penned by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, who pretty much saw the same thing as the rest of us watching the event online but who describes it far better than anyone else:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3048452.ece

Happy reading, it’s well worth the extra moments.

Summit Week

As you might have noticed, the top people of the European Union’s member states will convene in Brussels at the end of this week – after flying out on a day trip to Lisbon to sign their names on a piece of paper, taht is.

If they do manage to write all the letters in their own names without piercing themselves to death with their fountain pens or something similar, they will be turning up late Thursday. That means that it’s time to reserve a workspace in the press centre.

Ye faithful readers of this blog know that this isn’t as easy as it seems. At the last few summits, spaces have been harder and harder to get, and at the last one, someone stole mine.

This time I’m going to avenge myself, I thought, and manufactured the most professional-looking sign I could throw together, with my company’s logo and all. I went there some time after 9 am this morning – and indeed, reservations had already started even thpough the workmen were still setting things up – and firmly taped it down. I happened to be there when another group of Swedish journalists arrived in the same business, and decided to join them hoping that the mass effect would be harder to beat (and that we would be friendly enough to keep an eye on eachother’s reswervations, among colleagues and all that). We joked that we should perhaps raise a Swedish flag or something and claim an area as occupied territory, just to be sure.

But I think I’ll follow the example of Associated Press next time. They’ve printed reservation signs on A4-sized stickers, attached permanently to the tables, which means that they have permanent reservations even though the tables in the main press area are folded up and stored away between summits. I saw some that bore visible signs of violent attempts to scrape them off, so the practice may not be all that popular with the press centre staff – but at least it seems to work.

Taking my soldering iron with me and physically enbgraving my name on one of the tables is another thought that has occured to me, but that would increase the risk of the tables being replaced due to damage, and bang goes that smart idea.

Not to mention that I might be reprimanded for it. But then again, I could just make a name up, or write my boss’s.

Shout, Shout

Can someone please tell me what in the name of peace people think they will achieve by demonstrating outside the EU buildings in Brussels about this or that.

Every single time you arrive at the Schuman roundabout in eastern Brussels, between the Commission’s four-armed fatso building, the Berlaymonster, and the Council’s even fatter, pink behemoth Justus Lipsius – the open space between the two is invariably filled with some group or another, demonstrating against something or another. Today, the Ministers of Agriclture convene in the Council colossus, debating the future of the Common Agriculture Policy, so there was a group of farmers ranting outside, shock horror and all that.

But their war cries were barely loud enough to be audible over the traffic noise. At the distance of some 20-30 metres, where I passd them on my way from the Metro station to the council building, I could not hear a word of what they were chanting over the megaphone – only just make out that they were speaking French. As soon as I entered the building, the sound of it all vanished. Right now, I am sitting in the Council’s press room writing this, and believe me, the only thing to be heard in here is the quiet murmuring of journalists mumbling into their mobile phones or occasionally to eachother, the muffled sound of footsteps against the wall-to-wall carpets, the odd Windows dingohdong, the tapping ticticiticiticticiticiticticiticiticticitici of laptops being typed on, the bababababababa of my hammering on my laptop (I grew up using a typewiter with a ribbon that hadn’t been replaced for years, which is why my computer’s keyboards rarely last for more than 18 months to a year), and the occasional clanging of my coffee cup.

There cold be riots with water cannons going on outside – we wouldn’t notice.

And yet, I can understand how the reasoning has been going. “Let’s not just sit here! We’re gonna go to Brussels, we’re gonna show them how many we are, we’re gonna tell them that they can’t squash US, weeeeee’re gonna let them KNOW!!” And so, a coach is summoned, filled with placards and banners, people and fighting zeal, and off they go. The chanting probably goes on all the way to the Belgian border and perhaps beyond. Off they go, out they go, into the rain and outside they go. They chant to deaf office windows and mute concrete building facades, they break their voices shouting out the slogans that only the surrounding police officers will ever hear, leaning around the fences and against walls as they usualy are, tired of wasting another day watching another pointless manifestation.

Afterwards, perhaps a few drinks or – if they’re lucky – a decent moules-frites meal later, the demonstrators re-enter their rented coach, patting eachother’s backs about actually having DONE something, and may perhaps share a few remaining chants to their mutual edification before snoozing off before crossin the Belgian border again.

Back home, they can enjoy the satisfaction of filing an entry in this year’s annual report of their organisation about having PROTESTED TO THE MINISTERS as one of this year’s accomplishments. A report that might even be read, and perhaps reach its primary objective of edifying their own ranks, before eventually being filed, shelved, and forgotten.

Maybe one day they will actually wake up to the fact that nothing actually came out of it. Maybe not.