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.

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.

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.

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.

Into The Fog

No wonder why there’s been so little from me lately – this is time of the year when everything comes to a halt all over Europe. EU people are on holiday, everyone’s on holiday, everything runs at minimum speed.

Not that I blame anyone. I mean, people need more days off, not less – especially in the UK where there’s at least a Bank Holiday coming up next Monday, but too little else in terms of red days in the calendar.

I deliberately placed my own vacation in both July (which is the main vacation month in Sweden, where or readers are) and August (which is the main vacation monthe here), having made the mistake when I was new to journalism to try to work during that time of the year.

Nice though that was, I’m still finding things pretty slow around here.

Phoney Belgacom!

Following a few recent comments here on this site, I must share the story of how we got our phones.

Or, should I say, how we eventually got our phones.

Or “How many Belgacom people does it take to install a new phone line? Answer: I don’t know, I’ve lost count.”

Before moving here from Sweden in 2004, we of course tried to arrange things on beforehand. The option we could find then was Belga-“In Space, No-One Can Hear You Scream”-com. After just a few calls, we actually got in touch with a friendly woman who promised us that everything would be taken care of.

Or so we thought.

We came, we unpacked, we had no phone. We called. Ehrm, it would take a few weeks. OK, we’ll wait.

Came the day of installation, came no installation man.

We called. Ehrm, “normally he should have been there yesterday.” Duh. No excuses. New appointment.

Still no phone.

Came new appointment, came Installation Man, came disappoinment. Installation Man would not install. “Ehrm, sorry, the cable in the street is too bad.”

“?” said we. “The house has just been built!”

“Sorry, we’ll send someone over.”

Still no phone.

Came new appointment once again, came Two Other Gentlemen. One fat and sturdy, one crooked and skinny. Sturdy Man invoked an impressive collection of technological wonders, including one apparatus of unknown properties that he swung hither and thither across the pavement. Finally, Sturdy Man say, “This is Spot.”

Upon which Skinny Man, who until then had been sitting and watching Sturdy Man, produced a spade and started digging.

Maybe Sturdy Man wasn’t trained to handle such an advanced piece of equipment as a spade.

Skinny Man finished digging, Sturdy Man performed unknown and unseen miracles in hole, Two Other Gentlemen left.

Still no phone.

Came new appointment once again again, came New Installation Man. New Installation Man installed. New Installation Man left. We had a phone.

So did our neighbours. Our phone, that was.

It took some time to figure out that each time someone called us, the phone rang in our neighbours’ apartment. And if we and our neighbours lifted our recievers at the same time, we could talk to each other.

We like our neighbours. But maybe this was taking it a bit too far.

So we made a joint phone call to Belgacom again. Got to speak to 3-4 other people, got to wait again and again. Got to listen to waiting music again and again and again. Over and over and over again.

Came new appointment again again again, came Third Installation Man. Shock, horror: Third Man actually managed to sort out the mess.

We now had our own phone.

After some two months, after five different people visiting ous, after countless hours trying to get in touch with someone at Belgacom, after countless hours wasted, and after speaking to who knows how many different people at the Belgacom offices.

We promptly changed to Telenet – three years of flawless service.

I still get the creeps whenever I hear Belgacom’s musical jingles on TV.

Why Can’t They Sleep Like Normal People?

Over the next few days, you’ll probably hear about your usual politicians’ heroic efforts to fight for your country’s interests late through the night at the upcoming EU summit, which starts Thursday, and where 27 heads of state and government are to fight over a new EU Constitution sorry, treaty no not really, er, additional treaty, or what was it we were going to call it so as not to offend anyone?

Anyway. It’s all fine and dandy that they work hard. What I can’t understand is why they have to go on and on into the night.

It probably looks very heroic and macho to say that “we fought into the wee hours, and we beat the others at about half past four because we were the only ones able to stay awake” et cetera ad nauseam. But then you should know that they don’t even start the meeting until 17.00 (5pm).

Serious. It’s always like that. They drop in around 5pm in the biggest flood of motorcades you’ve seen (tip: if you’re planning a traffic offense in Belgium, try Thursday-Friday, because I can guarantee you that there isn’t a motorcycle policeman anywhere else in the whole country). An hour later, it’s time for the famous “family photo”, where they all line up for a pic – and which is a common source of bickering over who gets to stand where, thus able to be percieved as more important, and who gets to join in last, thus able to be percieved as more important.

(The image shown here is the “family photo” from the last summit, in March, happily nicked from the German Presidency’s web site. If you are able to count to more than 27 people on this picture, you’re right, since a wide selection of foreign ministers and other similar types of people usually join them. I can’t decide if Angela Merkel is either trying to conduct everyone into place, pushing back Jan-Peter Balkenende for getting too intimate, waving farewell to Jacques Chirac as this was his last summit, or if she’s simply praying for Mr Chirac. Romano Prodi, who used to head the EU Commission but now tries to steer Italy, poor chap, seems like he’s made enough friends during his EU years to share a few jokes. Guy Verhofstadt is obviously pondering whether or not he remembered to tie his shoes, Tony Blair has his eyes fixed on the exit already, and Fredrik Reinfeldt looks like he’s thinking “can we please just get on with it so I can go to the bathroom?”)

Anyway. Only then do they get down to some serious business, and of course that takes forever and a day. The day after, they’re actually supposed to be finished around late lunchtime.

Now, you have to remember that most of the hard work is usually carried out by their ambassadors and their delegations in advance. But still – a time schedule like this is astonishing. Why can’t they get to work at nine o’clock in the morning like ordinary people do? Would that look too bland? Like you’d notice, given the blandness of the rest of the EU?

The latest gossip here in Brussels is that they’ll have to extend the summit into the weekend as well, because they probably won’t be able to agree. Well, fellas, maybe you could have avoided that if you’d got started a little earlier.

Safety And Gare Du Nord

As I have previously mentioned, WordPress – the host for this blog – shows you a bit about what people have searched for when they found my blog. (They give no clues as to who has been visiting the blog, they just show the search words.)

Anyway. One of the latest searches that has driected an unknown reader here is “is brussel area around gare du nord safe”.

Well, I’m sorry if you didn’t find anything on this blog about that, so I’ll give you a straigh answer instead: No.

There is no such thing as “safe areas” in a city the size of Brussels, and the area around the North Station (Gare du Nord/Noordstation) is notoriously sleazy. In fact, the same goes for the Central Station (Gare Central/Centraalstation), where a teenager was murdered some time ago for his MP3 player, and the South Station (Gare du Midi/Zuidstation), a bunker which is the shoddiest, dirtiest, sleaziest, ugliest, creepiest excuse for a station I have encountered. (I usually change from metro to bus there on my way home from the EU quarters; yesterday, I spent over half an hour there waitingfor a bus, so believe me.)

The Gare du Nord area used to be where the prostitutes went in search for their clients, and the usual criminality that comes with such garbage accompanied it. In recent years, the area has been cleaned up considerably, but I’d still be cautious going there, especially after dark.

This isn’t a problem confined only to Brussels; in any major city, keep your wallet in your front pocket together with your passport, and if you’re really smart, carry an extra wallet with some petty cash and a few fake credit cards that you can hand over if the worst comes to the worst. Avoid carrying large sums of money. Be cautious responding to strangers in public places. Etc etc, just plain common sense really.

…And More Vultures

Speaking about vultures, I just popped into the Summit Press Centre at the EU Council’s building Justus Lipsius to reserve a workstation.

At the December summit, I went to reserve a place some a day or so before the summit, and then, there were about 30 left. Last time, I went there a little earlier, and then there might have been, say, 20 left. This time, I was almost unable to find ONE. Well, eventually I did, but it was a close shave.

The thing is, you want to be in the courtyard (see image), where all the action is. There are more workstations two storeys underground insome hopeless cellar (basement), as there are a few more spread out in various other areas as well. And that’s what most other colleagues think, too.

Worst of all is that I live in Brussels, but was beaten by a few hundred journalists who are only here for the summit! Seems like I have a few more tricks to learn…

I was here at the end of last week (but then they hadn’t finished setting everything up yet) and could have easily driven past here on Sunday (but then they probably wouldn’t have let me in). But it seems that you have to keep the building under constant surveillance and rush in there as soon as things are set up, providing they don’t jail you for keeping the building under surveillance, that is.

Security is majestical during these events, but I suppose I’ll write more about that later during this week.

Vultures

This week is Summit week, when the European Union’s Heads of State and Government (I almost typed “Hades” instead of “Heads”, now there’s a Freudian slip if I ever saw one) gather to adopt a Constitution taht isn’t a constitution or whatever. And already, the vultures are gathering.

Literally. Flocks of Spanish Griffon vultures have flown north in search for food, because they are unable to find any at home since Spanish farmers have stopped dropping cattle carcasses in the open. A flock was recently seen in Ghent, not to far from Brussels.

So. Why Belgium? Why (almost) Brussels? Why right now, when the Hades Heads of State and Government are here too? Why right now, when flocks of journalists are here as well? Why at the very summit which is desperately trying to, ehrm, revive the EU Constitution?

I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Jah Provide De Bread

I started this day wallowing in my latest download from iTunes – “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley. (The version with the Wailers. Great tune. Full roots reggae at its best.)

And then came the most surrealistic SMS (text message) imaginable on my cell phone , just a minute ago: “JAH Pressbriefing on Monday 11 June 2007.”

Now, if I had been a Rastafari devotee (which, thank Goodness, I am not), I would have considered this above and beyond a sign from above; rather, something close to an invoked Second Coming.

Especially if I had been indulging in such substances that Rastafaris tend to indulge in (which, thank Goodness, I never have and certainly never will. Drugs are the devil’s work, period.)

However, it turned out to have a full terrestial explanation, rather than the Almighty meeting the press: JAH is an EU acronym for Justice And Home Affairs, the ministers of which are meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. The sender, consequently, was the German EU Presidency, which thankfully bombards my cell phone with information on this and that every day.

An excellent service which I will not complain about, that is. But maybe the EU should consider revising some of its acronyms a bit.

Imagine this message reaching the wrong cell phone: Hordes of dreadlocked pot-smokers stampeeding towards the EU Council building, playing Marley at full blast, dancing and prancing in religious ecstasy about getting to meet their Maker in person. (And imagine the riots when they discover that all they meet are little middle-age men in grey suits. All the ganja in the world wouldn’t have convinced even the most liberal Haile Selassie worshippers that their god had incarnated as a German civil servant.)

I have a small suggestion: Justice And Home Affairs should actually be JAHA. That, in turn, would have been extra hilarious, as “Jaha” means “oh, really” or “so what” in Swedish.

Which, in turn, might have added the extra benefit of being a more accurate description.

Green, Green Glass Of Home

Walking through the quarters around the EU institutions quickly makes you spot which buildings are part of the EU frenzy or fringe, and which are not: Just look at the windows.

For some reason, bullet-proof glass usually tends to be as green as the deep blue sea, which as we all know is green rather than blue. (Now there’s an odd sentence if I ever saw one, but I’m tired and I’m writing this on the bus to stop myself from falling asleep. That doesn’t mean that I’m actually writing on the bus, like scribbling graffitti on the seats and the walls, but on the computer, sitting on the bus. No, I’m not writing on the computer, and the computer isn’t sitting… bah. That’s beside the point. Let’s assume you get the general idea.)

Anyway.

You can walk around this area for a while and suddenly notice that all windows on a particular building has this sickly green tint to them – aha, there’s another EU institution. Is it one of the Commission’s 61 buildings? Or one of the countless embassies, or permanent representations?

The German Permanent Representation to the EU has actually managed to make quite a nice architectural feat out of it, having a clean, cream-coloured bastion that contrasts fine with the green sheets of glass. One or two blocks away, however, you find a ghastly grey blob of concrete, also with green glass. which makes the whole thing look as misfit as the colour scheme of a 1975 domestic kitchen.

Oh sure, there’s the stars-on-blue, it’s a Commission building alright.

It all occurred to me as I decided to take a stroll along the route of my bus while waiting for it after a hard day’s work today, and of course getting lost on the way and ending up having walked in a huge semicircle from the Berlaymonster on Rue de la Loi to, ehrm, Rue de la Loi just down the road. (I told you I have no sense of direction.) However, the sun was shining, the weather was nice, and I decided to continue.

Turning left onto the inner ring road gets you another experience of the same kind. First comes the Russian Embassy, which doesn’t seem to have been able to afford any bullet-proof windows at all. It looks remarkably plain and would have been indistinguishable from the adjacent residential apartment blocks had it not been for the big Russian flag and some security, although, no visible human beings on guard. Maybe they’re all in Moscow putting critically-minded journalists in prison. Who knows.

The US Embassy, though, which is just a few doors down the road (boy, would I have loved to sniff around those quarters during the Cold War) is as guarded as Fort Knox. There’s a permanent police posting outside – Belgian police, that is – and you’d better not look too dodgy walking past there.

I look dodgy. They just about stopped and questioned me.

(Incidentally, the US Embassy and Consulate are divided by a side street called Rue Zinner. Not Sinner, that is. I’m sure they’ve all heard that joke before, but I couldn’t resist it.)

But then comes another fortress, which is covered in more green bullet-proof glass than any other building, making you wonder which country has its embassy or representation here. Iran? Israel? North Korea?

No – it turns out to be the seat of the local government for the City of Brussels. Which, for some reason, feels threatened enough to clad itself in more armour than a medieval knight, and certainly more than the Embassies of Russia and the United States put together. But maybe the Brussels gov’t is an emerging superpower, who knows.

They even have far more protection than the Belgian Ministry of Defence, which is just around the corner, and which doesn’t even seem to have any live human being on guard, let alone a security perimeter. But then again, the Belgian arned forces, luckily enough, don’t need to be too busy nowadays.

Paperwork

One fine pastime an EU correspondent has, when there’s nothing else to do, is to read the questions from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to the EU Commission, which are published every now and then – together with the answers from the Commissioners – whenever the printing room has filled its capacity, I suppose; the latest bunch of Q and A is about half an inch thick.

Still, it’s certainly amusing reading, not least when you sense the ill-concealed fury expressed in the questions – the MEPs are a frustrated lot – and because of the just as ill-concealed attempts by the Commissioners to answer without actually saying anything.

No issue is too trivial. Whistleblower Paul van Buitenen MEP wants to know why the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF is so aggressively incompetent, why he doesn’t get any response to his questions, and why those who have leaked the information on OLAF’s lack of competence are being persecuted. Caroline Lucas MEP is being informed how many journeys Commission staff hade to make to the Parliament’s sessions in Strasbourg – 3,500 last year, in spite of the presence of such inventions as e-mail, fax and telephone, at a cost of EUR 2.4 million, it turns out. Out of these, 55 per cent decided they needed to fly, 35 per cent were happy to go by car, and only seven per cent were environmental-friendly enough to take the train, the response sums up, which must mean that there are three per cent of the travellers who either walk from Brussels to Strasbourg or get lost on the way.

Maybe the Commission has become so large these days that doesn’t notice if 95 people go AWOL. Don’t tell the staff. It might be detrimental to their morale.

Anyway.

The question is, though, whether Christopher Heaton-Harris MEP doesn’t walk away with some kind of prize this time, as he contributes with a fine nugget, asking how many tonnes of paper the Commission used during 2004-2006.

1,703 tonnes in Brussels and 254 tonnes in Luxemburg in 2006, Commissioner Siim Kallas patiently responds, adding figures for the two preceding years that show that the Commission is actually munching less and less A4 office paper; its appetite has dropped by some 250 tonnes during that period. The Commission recycled about twice as much, Siim Kallas adds, because the recycling figures includes paper and cardboard coming from outside the Commission, such as packaging material, publications, documents from other institutions (and, I suppose, protest letters from the general public and odd questions from MEPs.)

So now you know: The Brussels Paper Tiger is actually getting easier on the environment. But we do not know how thirsty it is, however, because the next question from MEP Heaton-Harris – “How many bottles of water were consumed by staff at the European Commission in 2006?” is met with the response “The figures… are being sent direct to the Honourable Member and to Parliament’s Secretariat [sic]”.

I wonder what the Honourable MEP intends to do with them.

Shutdown, A Survival Guide

Today was one of those days that you might call Survival Day here in Belgium. It’s a public holiday – the day after Pentecost – which means that all is closed. Complete shutdown.

Fine, I certainly think people need time off. But when it goes over more than a normal weekend, life suddenly becomes an exercise in Urban Survival.

Cash is first. Cash dispensers (ATMs) usually dry up on day three of any given long weekend, in central Brussels usually on Sunday nights I am told, so the first thing to do is to raid the hole in the wall. I normally don’t like to carry a lot of cash around for security reasons – cash in my wallet is in great danger of being spent – but since I’ve had quite a lot of problems with my VISA card lately, you can’t rely on your card being useful.

Then comes food and supplies. Supermarkets are usually shut on Sundays, basically with no exceptions when it comes to the usual chains, and they remain as shut on extra holidays. At the same time, all family will be in to eat every meal at home, you might want to get a little extra this-or-that for your extra time together, and oh maybe someone might drop by as well. So, next thing is to work out your prep list and try to foresee all the variables that come with having kiddies; for instance, sudden surges in milk consumption.

(I have many times considered buying a cow, which would take care of the need for mowing the lawn as well, but it probably couldn’t keep up with the demand in this family. In fact, I was delighted when we first moved here to see that our farming neighbour had three cows just across the fence, and I quickly asked him in my lousy Dutch if we couldn’t buy milk directly from him. He burst out laughing and laughing, and then gave me a basic biology lesson explaining why a cow without a calf doesn’t produce any milk. OK, I thought, I’m a city boy, fair cop; but then it turned out that he’d been sharing this amusing story about those crazy city-folks for foreigner newcomers with half the village.)

Then you need to make itiniary plans. Belgium has roughly ten million inhabitants, but I can assure you that there are at least twenty million cars out on the motorway around Brussels alone during any given rush hour during normal workdays. During long holidays, the Belgian roads are little else than oblong car parks. So if you plan on going somewhere – get out early. And no, traffic doesn’t get lighter during the day because everyone else would be heading out early too – we’ve tried that; the less said about that day, the better.

This time, I thought I had it all worked out. Every food storage area in our apartment was properly stocked. We were staying at home to relax. I had the cash I needed. But of course we ran out of milk anyway, and then, well, er, there’s no easy way of saying this, but… ehrm, let’s just skip the reasons, and say that we ran out of toilet paper, and leave it at that. And when you do, especially for the very reasons that cause you to run out of such items, you simply must go and get more.

Luckily, we have by now mapped the waterholes for such events. There’s a lovely little shop down in central Sint-Pieters-Leeuw called (simply) Deli Traiteur, which has assumed the mission of staying open whenever everyone else stays shut. It’s great business for them, and they’re pretty well stocked as well. AND they’re always nice and friendly. AND the shop is neat and inviting. AND they always happily take my VISA card.

I just checked their web site and it turns out that they have more than twenty branches all over Brussels, all with generous opening hours. I haven’t visited them all, of course, but if they’re as good as the one we go to, they’re well worth being your first call in case of holiday horror. They’re a bit expensive, which is why we don’t shop there regularly, but on a shutdown day, it’s worth every cent. Bedankt!

As a little irrelevant twist, our local Deli Traiteur this time was displaying a set of premium spices from the Swedish company Santa Maria – in a display box with all text in Swedish. Quite a strange sight. Which you won’t get to see here, of course, because I forgot to take my camera as usual.

(By the way, there’s a famous news photographer in the US, also named Jonathan Newton. Maybe all the photographic DNA from the gene pool of all Jonathan Newtons has been sucked out to him… that would explain one or two things. Any other Jonathan Newton out there who is as bad at taking pictures as I am who can confirm this?)

Euromyths, Part 2 (Long Overdue)

Yes, I did promise a few more juicy myths about the European Union quite some time ago, but hey, I’ve been working. 🙂 Anyway, here’s an old favourite:

Myth: The EU headquarters hosts a multi-storey super-computer, called “The Beast”, which tracks the movements of all people on the face of the Earth. This is a predecessor of the forthcoming Antichrist rule of the world.

This is a myth that has only started to fade, probably to the improvements of technology, which has by now made most people realise that there is no longer any need for any multi-storey computers; the computer you use to read this is probably more powerful. Nevertheless, it is still put forward as truth, as I noticed when doing some quick research for this blog entry, and was pretty widespread for many years among many of my fellow Christians who believe that the EU in some way will be either the personification itself or a vehicle for the anti-Christian rule of the last days foretold in the Book of Revelation.

I shall deal more in detail with the idea that the EU has such a function in a forthcoming Euromyths blog entry, because it deserves some attention in itself. However, let’s get past this computer stuff first.

This is actually a myth whose origins, unusually enough, can be traced.

It all started with a novel, Behold A Pale Horse by Joe Musser, published in 1970; a fictionalised account of the last days as foretold in the Bible, in the same genre as would later be popularised by the Left Behind series. As the account goes, there was a mention of such a computer in that book, which was later put to graphic depiction when the book was made into a film, The Rapture. The film was marketed with some mock newspaper-like publications running “the story” about the super-computer.

Apparently, the disclaimer on these fake papers was either too obscure or not prominent enough, and the story was picked up as fact and passed on. Joe Musser himself is said to have been shocked that his fiction was being reported as fact, and has tried to refute it, but to no avail.

It is easy to see why this fiction was so readily believed by so many. Remember, in those days and for many more years to come, computers were very unknown and very scary. They were usually seen as anonymous threat, often possessing some kind of human-like attributes. When I grew up in the 1980s, for instance, there was a very real and vivid public debate about how the computerisation of society would increasingly steal people’s jobs, if not making humans obsolete altogether in one area after another. The whole Terminator film series builds on this very premise, and “The Computer” was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1982, further cementing its status as bearing human qualifications.

For generations, Christians have read the last Book of the Bible with varying degrees of fear and awe, anxiously trying to identify the various characters there in their own time. Come the early 1970s, suddenly things would have fallen into place: ‘Of course… the Beast won’t be a real human… it’s a computer.’

Add to that the general ignorance of what computers were in those days, as well as the limited possibilities to check urban legends during the pre-Information Age, and you have fertile ground for computer lore.

One might think that the idea would have fallen on its own unreasonability, to anyone who would stop and think. In those days, the then Common Market that would later evolve into the EU only had six member states, becoming nine in 1973. Violently gigantic chunks of the globe were outside of the Common Market’s reach; not only the Americas or Africa, but the entire Communist world, which certainly would never have fed the Western world any details of its inhabitants!

To make things even more complicated, not even the member states themselves had much track of their citizens; Britain, for instance, one of the new members in 1973, lacks a central population register to this day. To imagine that there would be any interest, capacity, or even resources within the Common Market of a few Western European nations to go out and e.g. identify inhabitants of remote tribal villages in Borneo’s jungles or Australia’s outback is so outrageous that it should have made even the most hardened conspiracy theorist stop and think.

Satellites were rare and certainly not commercially available, wireless communication clumsy, and digital technology in its infancy – the sheer logistic and technological problems of such a scheme would have been impossible to overcome. And then there is the question of who on Earth would have been prepared to pay for such a venture, bearing in mind how picky member states havd usually been about not paying one penny more than necessary to the Common Market/EEC/EC/EU and getting as much as possible back.

As readers of this blog know, the most commonly named location for this machine – the famous Berlaymonster – was gutted between 1991 and 2004. There are no records of any such technology being either found or transported from that site, nor has anyone who would have worked at the site come forward with any such revelation. And mind you, they have come forward in other contexts, most notably to complain about the hazards they were exposed to when tearing out all the asbestos in there.

And, once again, needless to say, computer technology of the 1970s won’t exactly let you play your favourite PlayStation games.

It is true that the EU has traditionally been quite advanced in terms of databases – for Community legislation and the like; in the same way as we now take for granted that most official documents produced by any government are available over the Internet.

If ever I come across any suspicious-looking computer equipment at the EU, I promise you’ll be the first to know. Until then, you can safely assume that this is a myth.

(Footnote: To avoid all misunderstanding, maybe I should add that I have not taken any of the above pictures at any computer centrals in any EU buildings. In fact, I have not taken them myself at all, but happily gleaned them from Wikimedia Commons’ Historical Computers category. They depict, from top to bottom, the SAGE AN/FSQ-7 at the American air defence NORAD; Harvard Mark I; an R2-D2-looking tin can from the now defunct Datasaab – believe it or not, called Datasaab D2!; and the ENIAC.)

Ja Vi Elsker Dette Landet

Life in Brussels is far from only the usual vortex of EU and Belgian culture. Far from it. Rather, it’s a mix and a mosaic and a melting pot, all at once. So it was only half unexpected that we should get invited to celebrate Norway’s national day last Thursday.

The connection point was our friends Mark and Sigrid. He, being a British gentleman, wanted to surprise his Norwegian wife by taking her to the huge celebrations held at the Scandinavian school and Norwegian/Swedish church on her country’s national day, and had asked us secretly beforehand if we wanted to join in. After all, my wife is Swedish, I am half Swedish, and the children are a fine blend. Scandinavians all around, kind of.

Norway may not be in the EU, but has a representation that is so close to the Berlaymonster that the Norwegian flag is the first foreign flag you usually see in those quarters. What’s more, Norway is also an enthusiastic member of NATO, whose world headquarters are not far from where we go to church. So there are plenty of Norwegian people in Brussels, certainly enough to whip up a respectable bash.

I’m always in for a decent party. Great idea, we said, and on the big day of syttende maj, we set off.

The festivities had been announced as largely consisting of games for the kids, activities for the kids, fun for the kids, lotteries for the kids, hot dogs and soft drinks and anything else that can be creatively smeared on clothes, and everything else that, when combined with one four-year-old and one half-past-five-year-old, inevitably will induce wall to wall washing machine use. So, being fairly experienced parents and used to Swedish outdoor activities, we therefore collectively donned what is known in Sweden as “oömma kläder” (not-so-easily-ruined clothes).

Little did we know that we would be in for a shock.

Upon arrival, after the usual erroneous driving, we were met by National Pride Embodied. I kid you not: Everyone was wearing his or her absolute best. Not their Sunday best, that is, but their Very Best, the near-sacred garments that are kept for once-a-year events.

Every man in sight was in a suit and tie, all the way down to the smallest children. That is, with the exception of the majority of the people, who were instead decked out in their carefully crafted national dresses, painstakingly hand-sewn down to the last stitch, of the kind which you can see on the picture here (no, it’s not from the Brussels event, because of course I forgot my camera). All the way, of course, down to the smallest children.

My wife was wearing slightly less casual attire than the rest of us. I, wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans, asked my wife if I could hide behind her. My wife was offended by the very idea that I thought that I would be able to hide behind her.

The ambassador spoke. (And the people were asked to remain silent while he did so). The national anthem was played. (And the people didn’t have to be asked to stand to attention and sing, hands on hearts, tears in corners of eyes). The people marched around the courtyard in a procession. (And everyone cheered from the depths of their hearts).

Flags were waved everywhere with the pride that can only be mustered by a nation that only became fully independent in 1905.

Incidentally, in that year, the country they became independent from was – Sweden.

That in itself would have been enough to make us feel as popular at the celebration of that independence as bacon sandwiches at a Bar Mitzvah, but to add insult to injury, we suddenly discovered that we had managed to top off our oldest son’s jeans, sweater and gym shoes outfit with a cap with the word “Sweden” in large gold letters across the front.

We had him turn it back to front. The rear band of his cap had the word “SWEDEN” printed on it in large gold capital letters. We tried combing some of his hair over it. We regretted his latest haircut.

And then, the final insult: I had to take my youngest son to the bathroom – when you gotta go, you gotta go – which turned out to be inside the main building. We got inside. My son went into a cubicle. So did I. And then I discovered that the whole men’s room had large – large – windows facing the front courtyard. Outside those huge windows stood the brass band, solemnly playing Norwegian nationalistic music. In front of them stood the entire Norwegian Brussels colony, solemnly listening.

And solemnly watching.

And behind the brass band, remember, my four-year-old and I – citizens of the former occupying power – were peeing.

Luckily, there was no diplomatic crisis as a result. Thanks to the Norwegians themselves, whose other defining characteristic – apart, as we now have painstakingly learned by trial and horror, from national pride – is a deep, wide and profound sense of general friendliness. They didn’t chuck us out – on the contrary, they made us all feel very welcome and have a very good time.

So it was easy for us at the end of that day to agree with the first few words of the Norwegian national anthem: “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” – “Yes, we love this country”.

And be happy that I had decided to put the jeans with holes on both knees in the laundry bin the day before.

Disinventing Service, The Belgian Way

Belgian people are usually very friendly and nice when you meet them privately. We have many good friends here whom we appreciate very much, and who have been great blessings to know. So it is therefore extra tragic that as soon as you put a Belgian behind a counter or in any other service function, s/he turns into Basil Fawlty.

These last few week, I have had cascades of bad experiences of that kind, each of which is a story on its own. I have had to call, call, call, call, shout, yell, rant and rave at a car glass company to come and fix my car’s broken window as they had agreed to do (they finally turned up in the middle of the night), I have been scorned by checkout staff at my local supermarket for being a paying customer, I have been rudely told off by waiting staff for complaining that we didn’t get what we ordered at a restaurant – and had another argument when trying to explain that I wasn’t going to pay for food that I didn’t receive – and to round it off nicely, today, I had someone at the call centre of the famous Belgian rail company slam the phone down on me (after him being rude and generally disinterested) when I called and asked why their Internet booking system didn’t seem to accept any Visa cards (yes, there was enough money on them, yes, we did try several different cards).

Previous experiences include being yelled at by a toilet lady because my brother-in-law from Sweden, who only wanted to use the public lavatory, did not speak French; and the whole story about when it took Belgacom five visits and numerous calls to do such a simple thing as connecting a phone – at one point, they managed to hardwire us with our neighbour’s phone – is a story in itself that I hope to share some day.

My friend‘s tale of having to threaten a local appliances chain with legal action in order for them to hand her computer back to her after repairing it – her own computer – is a story she’ll have to tell herself.

I just can’t fathom this. More often than not, people in such functions act as if their jobs were so below them that their customers are, too. They take an attitude of being some sort of Government officials, before whom you’d better take your hat off and bow down in humility, for them to lower themselves to even hearing your request.

In fact, I have even found that it works better if you play Opposite World with them: if you as a customer constantly apologise to them, things work better.

The idea that we as paying customers pay their salary just doesn’t seem to enter their heads. Rather, they seem cross with us for keeping them at work, rather than sitting at the local pub drinking Hoegaarden on the taxpayers’ expense.

I know that this is a harsh way to say things. But during my total of about five years in this country, I have been so rudely treated so many times by so many different people who were supposed to be customer-friendly that I most certainly see a pattern. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. And I feel that it is time to speak up.

I do not want to be treated like a piece of dirt just because I’m getting my groceries. All I want is my groceries. You don’t even have to smile or say hi, like many don’t here, just check my stuff out and let me pay and I won’t bother you any more. But as soon as they make a mistake or mess up, they get angry with me.

In other countries, the customer is always right. In Belgium, the customer is always wrong.

There are some fine examples of the opposite, and I hope to one day be able to publish my own Good Brussels Guide of companies and shops who treat you well. But far to often to be acceptable in any way, you get the opposite. And that’s just not good enough.

Some 30 years ago, it was all the same in Britain. We British treated our customers like garbage, to our everlasting shame. We used to handle complaints by shrugging our shoulders and say “Sorry, I don’t know”; “sorry” here generally being used in this context meaning “I don’t know and I don’t care“.

But then came Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch, and we saw ourselves and how awful we behaved. We moved on.

You’d hope that there would some day be some Fawltieckxe Toren/Tour des Fawltieckx on Belgian TV, but frankly I doubt that it would do the trick. Basil Fawlty is quite an ordinary figure in Belgian everyday life, and I doubt very much that people would get the jokes at all… because his behaviour seems to be considered quite normal here.

(click to play)

Going Bananas

I am writing this sitting in the back row of the main press briefing room at the European Council’s bastion. Today, we are all being told everything there is to know about Monday’s General Affairs and External Relations Coucil, with the EU’s chronic knack for acronyms usually called GAERC.

The briefing is off the record, but I managed to sneak up my camera and fire away this shot from my seat to give you an idea about what it looks like (don’t tell anyone, will you).

Waitaminit, you may ask now. What on Earth has a journalist covering the food industry got to do with the monthly meeting of foreign ministers?

The answer is that food issues more often than you think make their way even into foreign policy, international relations, and diplomacy. The reason that triggered my visit today was to find out whether or not there will be any discussion about banana imports, which apparently has ended up on the foreign ministers’ table between dossiers to be considered on US missile shields, Sudan and Darfur, the Middle East, the Balkans, and other things that you might have thought of more importance.

So far, there has been no mention about bananas, but there has been mention about the ongoing meat crisis between Poland and Russia. As you may or may not be aware of, Russia has blocked all meat imports from Poland due to alleged health safety concerns – or, if you ask the Polish, in order to punish the country for its outspokenness against Russia. Poland is one of the former Communist bloc nations that most enthusiastically threw itself into the arms of all things Western as soon as the Iron Curtain was lifted, and many suspect the Russians of wanting to make a point.

Regardless of what you think about that, it is an observable fact that Russia is putting on an impressive procrastination performance in order to stall any and every attempt to solve the issue. The latest correspondence came from Moscow only yesterday, and is already considered way inadequate here in Brussels.

The jury is still out on whether this feud will wreck the entire upcoming summit between the EU and Russia. Everyone assures us that the summit won’t be called off, but the very fact that such talk is circulating gives you an idea about how big this issue has become.

This is just how far-reaching effects all things food sometimes have. It is not merely a matter of eating to stay alive; food contains so much of culture, national pride, identity and politics that a heap of meat can ruin the relations between two of the world’s mightiest powers.

The defence ministers will also meet, but, so far, food related issues are not being discussed by them, I am happy to say. But don’t be surprised if that happens, too, one bad day. The world is smaller than we think.

Wait, now they’re talking bananas after all. Got to go!

Euromyths, Part 1

Well, I promised to indulge in some fun myths about the European Union, so let’s start out hard with this compilation of untrue reports in mainstream media that the European Commission’s representation in Britain has amassed.

What’s that? Oh, I’ll say that again.

The lengthy list of simply untrue stories, reported as if they were true, that you will find by clicking on the above link, is what the European Commission has been able to find in ONE out of 27 member states. It’s probably mind-boggling to start imagining the amount of myths reported as facts in non-EU countries.

Don’t believe everything you read in the news, then.

Already googling the word ‘euromyths’ returns almost 32,000 results, and then we’re obviously not counting the major part of them; the myths and misunderstandings that are being taken as truth as we speak.

How did this happen?

Well, to begin with, a lot is plain ignorance. In most countries, newsmen and -women lack the basic understanding of how the EU functions, in a way that would embarass them had they been similarly ignorant of how their own nations work. I will be the first to agree that the EU’s legislation process is very complicated and difficult to comprehend, but you would at least expect editors to be aware of the difference between the EU Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of Ministers.

Moreover, there are strong EU-skeptic movements in many countries, and be not ignorant, m little children: there are bad boys out there deliberately spreading misinformation. Exaggerating things just a little bit or twisting things only so slightly is a well-known way of bending reality so that it serves your own interests.

However. If you look at the stories gathered on the page I linked to, you’ll notice that many of them do contain a grain of truth. Bananas may not be banned if they are curved, for instance, but it is true that they cannot be too curved in order to qualify for Class 1 standard.

Now, how in the world did we end up wasting our time and money inventing Classes 1 and 2 for bananas, when half of the world is starving and the other half is eating itself to death? That’s a question only the European Commission can answer.

Yes, I do like the banana shelves in my supermarket to look neat and tidy, but I’ll rather have peace, health, safety and prosperity for everyone first, please.

The page I linked to should keep you busy for the 1 May holiday. When you have finished marvelling at the threats against traditional Irish funerals, the erasing of islands, the rewriting of history or Kent becoming part of France, we shall move on to some of the murkier stuff where there is really misinformation going on, so stay tuned.

And no, I do not write this because I necessarily like the European Union or want to convert you all into EU-huggers; I simply can’t stand when fiction is being presented as fact. If we want a proper critical assessment of the EU, which we should in health’s name, then it must be based on facts. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time and unable to keep the real scandals under control.

In the name of democracy, let’s stick to the truth.

After The Coffee Break, We’ll Save The Rest Of The World

Speaking about press briefings, I must add a note about Thursday’s lengthy press briefing on the upcoming EU-USA summit on 2-4 May. The whole briefing was off the record, so I can’t go into too much detail. But you’re not missing much, because it was frankly as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, what did make it worth attending was watching one of the spokesmen for the German presidency, suit-clad, stone-faced and serious-looking, list the issues within the field of foreign policy that would be on the agenda:

“Ze Middle East, ze Israel-Palestinian situation, Lebanon, Syria, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Darfur and Russia, international terrorism, organised crime, and weapons of mass destruction”.

By then, muffled giggles had started spreading among the journalists in the European Council’s press briefing room in Brussels (where the whole thing was shown live on-screen via CCTV as the original briefing was held in Berlin).

Consequently unaware of the amusement he was causing in Brussels, the poor spokesman made a short pause and added, in an unchanged serious voice:

“I’m not sure all of these will be discussed”.

Duh.

Good thing, then, we must conclude, for the rest of the world’s dictators, criminals, thugs and villains, that the summit is only TWO days long.

PS. Speaking about villains: I wrote this in the reception lobby of a car glass service in Drogenbos, where I had to waste a lot of time watching my car having the window replaced that some faceless thugs smashed in pursuit of my car stereo yesterday. To add insult to injury, it now turns out that the car glass company can’t produce such a window on short notice, so I have to satisfy with a plexiglass dummy TAPED there and come back once again another day for the real thing. All the hassle, all the time wasted, all the frustration, just because of someone who couldn’t care less about other people’s hard-earned belongings! If only THAT could have been on one agenda or another, I murmur selfishly.

Brainstorming Storm

…as I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted, yesterday offered some of the usual, amusing stonewalling amusement that only the European Union can muster. This time, the attempt was to rein in the monumentally mishandled “mini-summit” that the Commission’s chairman José Manuel Barroso called the day before.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Mr Barroso was to invite a few select heads of government to his native Portugal on 12-13 May, to look into the future and discuss a few issues of one kind or another. (You might suspect this to be a euphemism for “looking into a glass with an ice cube-cooled beverage by the poolside in sunny Portugal”, but that is of course unsubstantiated slander.)

However, a number of other heads of government were not invited, which immediately triggered questions such as “What criteria did you have when selecting the lucky charter passengers sorry, conference attendees”, or “Is this another step towards a ‘two-speed EU'”, with some members being, eh, more members than others, which the union has tried to avoid in recent years.

Amusingly enough, the outcry thus produced made Mr Barroso swiftly change his plans and strike a few people off the guest list. All of a sudden, only a few people with slightly more defined importance for forward-looking issues were now on the shortlist, such as the heads of government for the countries next in turn to take the rotating chairmanship. You could almost hear the groaning of the other ones grumpily unpacking their sunscreen tubes and swim shorts.

Of course, Mr Barroso’s spokesman, our favourite gatekeeper Johannes Laitenberger, was pressed about all this by journalists who wondered whether or not they should bother booking a flight ticket or so. (They always send him forward when they know something controversial’s coming up.) Mr Laitenberger tried his best to convince us all at the daily press briefing that this was not a “mini-summit”, merely “brainstorming”.

“What”, one reporter eventually asked, ” do you say to those heads of government, like for instance the Belgian Prime Minister, whose brains were not considered important enough to storm”?

“Mr Barroso holds ongoing talks with all kinds of people”, Mr Laitenberger responded, adding:

“I can assure you that all brains will be stormed”.

All brains? Yeaouwch. Remember this, next time you have a sudden headache: it might be the EU storming your brain. Watch out for little men in black. Look carefully under your bed before going to sleep,

The Gas-Guzzling Travelling Circus

This week, the EU Parliament holds its monthly session in Strasbourg. Strasbourg, France, that is. Although being based in Brussels and having built a monstrous castle at the top of a hill there, they travel once a month to another ghastly castle to convene. This building – erected solely for the Parliament – is then EMPTY for the remaining 307 days each year.

The rest of the year, 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 1,220 officials, and countless hordes of journalists, lobyists and other creatures travel from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again for week-long sessions. The MEPs alone need 15 lorries to haul all their documents back and forth each month, as we all understand is necessary in this day and age of e-mail.
Oh, yes, and I forgot the 525 people who travel to Strasbourg from Luxemburg, where the Parliament’s administrative offices so wisely have been located.

The cost for this travelling circus amounts to millions of euros alone. If you only count in money, that is.

The EU has recently decided to cut greenhouse gases by 20 per cent. A couple of EU Parliamentarians therefore amused themselves by investigating the environmental cost for this madness, and today announce that the CO2 emissions from all this is at least 20,000 tonnes per year. You can read more about it in this excellent publication, one of the best news sources on all things EU.

So, why doesn’t the EU Parliament stop this? The answer is simple: They want to, but they do not have the power to change it.

That’s food for thought. The only directly elected institution in the EU is so aggressively powerless that it can’t even take a decision on where to house itself.

Now you might understand why I usually don’t bother to travel to Strasbourg to cover what they are doing.

One million people signed a petition some time ago to put an end to this. But such a decision has to be taken unanimously by the member states. And there’s one country that just won’t give up.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one.

Ulysses The Deskjockey

Perhaps it’s just as good that a couch potato like me, whose main movements at work are across wall-to-wall carpets within the EU’s comfortably padded cells for press centres, gets his shoes dirty with some foray into the real world every now and then.

As I said, the trains were on strike and I had told Belgian TV that I’d go home. However, I then decided to make an attempt to get to Luxemburg after all.

By one of these neat little coincidences in life that you might thank God for, I had bumped into my friend Philip at the strike-ridden Gare du Midi station. He had been given a plane ticket so he could go see his girlfriend in California, but couldn’t get to the airport. I had told him to try to get to the North station instead, where it might be easier to get an airport train or bus.

So, having weighed my options, I decided to try that myself; maybe I could get somewhere from there instead.

Arriving at Gare du Nord, I was met with the same sight as at Gare du Midi: one single information booth, a mile-long queue of stranded travellers, and signs saying sorry, no international trains because of the strike. (There were a number of domestic trains there, though, so I do hope Philip made it to his flight. “Fly away, Phil… be free”, if you’ve seen “Cars”.)

Anyway. I had talked with my colleague Patrik about perhaps riding with him, but eventually decided not to because he was planning to stay overnight in Luxemburg and I wasn’t. But now, I had, ehrm, thoroughly changed my mind. I called  him on my cell phone.

“I was waiting for you to call”, were the first words I heard.

I was more than welcome to hitch a ride. If I could just make it to their office.

It only so happened that the easiest way to get there turned out to be on a brand new tram line, making its first trips today – I must have been on the third or fourth departure of Line 25 ever. It was so new that it didn’t even seem to have learned to find its way, or so it seemed, as we were soon stuck in the perpetual vehicle gridlock that is known as Brussels traffic. Good thing that I had, for once, started early.

Arriving at the stop as instructed, I started my search for the offices of the Swedish Television. I thought I had a clue. I didn’t.

Patrik called, telling me not to hurry because he was late, too, as his bus had got stuck in the traffic. Surprise, surprise (Not).

I got some directions. Now, you must understand that the address spelled out to me was in French, and that I nearly failed French in high school. And it was spoken into one mobile phone and received by me on another mobile phone. To the backdrop of the morning traffic.

Another explanation for what was about to happen is that I am officially completely liberated from any sense of direction whatsoever.

So, having checked the two-by-four-metre billboard map in front of me, I set off. House number 95. Hm, the numbers start at 12 or something. OK, I’ll walk. And walk. And walk. Scorching sun. Sweaty shirt. Shoe size steadily increasing.

Some 10-20 minutes later – at last, number 95. Wait a minute. No sign of Swedish Television here.

I’m not calling again. After all, I’m a man, and there’s this thing about asking for directions. Wait, I have an idea. I’ll call directory inquiries and ask. Oh no, I’ve used up the phone card, another little walk to the cash dispenser.

Since Belgium is divided sideways, longways, thisways, thatways and some ways you wouldn’t imagine, there are three different numbers to call for directory inquiries, depending on whether you speak French, Flemish, or English. I called the one number I could think of, and a voice answered in German.

I hadn’t finished asking when the voice interrupted me. “No no, you must dial 1405 for inquiries in English”, she said. In perfect English.

I dialled 1405, but an automatic voice in my phone told me “You are not allowed to dial this number”. I’m not joking. I tried it twice.

OK, maybe it was that other street I should have walked. Another little promenade in the heat and sun, arriving almost full circle back to where I begun. At 95, there was still no sight of any TV newsroom, only the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea. I pondered for a moment whether I should ring the bell and ask for political asylum. Luckily, Patrik called again before I fell for the temptation.

“Where are you?”

I tried to explain to him that I had been at the advised address, but that there was no sight of his company. Oh yes, they were supposed to be there alright. Oh no, I have been right outside and gone somewhere else! OK, I’ll start all over again.

Just check the billboard map once again.

Oh no.

I had turned my perception of the whole thing upside down. I had walked in exactly the opposite direction.

The TV office was at number 95, alright, with at least two or three coloured signs brightly announcing its presence there. I thus understood that Patrik must have thought that I had completely gone either insane or blind, when I’d made some unwisecrack on the phone about “microscopic letters”.

We did eventually get to Luxemburg. I’m not sure how, because I fell asleep in the car.

Fast-forward to the same day’s evening. There was supposed to be a decision by the EU ministers on how to save the world’s eels, and we journalists waited, and waited, and waited. I called home. My wife was alone with two tired kids. The train strike was over, but when I checked the timetable, I realised I needed to get on the 20:24 train or get stuck in Arlon until early next day. I told her. She was not happy. To say the least.

Finally, two disillusioned Germans materialised to inform us that there wouldn’t be a decision after all. Case closed. Finito. Too bad.

That was about 19:55.

Right! Grab a bus and scoot down the hill from the European quarters to Luxemburg’s train station, conveniently located at the exact opposite side of town. Oh wait a minute, for some reason you have to actually check out of the conference centre where the meeting was held. And of course, it was all taken care of by a new apprentice, who had his supervisor talking him through the whole thing, step by step.

Come ON, before one of us dies.

Dash out to the bus stop. Next bus is 20:05. No, don’t start walking, Jonathan, you don’t know where to go. The bus should arrive at the station… well, some time around a minute after the train was to leave.

The bus was late.

Easy now. At least it’s a nice sightseeing.

SMS on the cell phone, about two minutes before arrival. “Negotiations about the eels have started”. Wait! Didn’t they just say that it had all broken down? Do I have to take the next bus back again?

By then, I decided I had had enough of eels for a decade or twenty-two. Two nanoseconds before arrival, I managed to send a message asking what was going on. The bus arrived at the station at 20:24. I scampered across the street to the serenade of angry car horns. I zoomed through the station. Yess! The train is late! Wait! There’s another one too! I made it!

I must have looked like a convict on the run from an asylum, as I – sweaty, adrenaline spurting out of my ears, hair in all directions, panting – roared to the conductor “C’est pour Bruxelles??”, pointing at the train bearing big large signs saying “Bruxelles-Midi” all over.

“Normalement, oui”, he responded, sanguinely.

Another SMS: Sorry, you’re right, the eel thing had collapsed.

The train arrived in Brussels some time before midnight. I pondered on how on Earth to get from central Brussels to my home here in the village outside town, now that the last bus had gone, and eventually decided to take a chance there’d be a metro taking me to the station from which it’s only a 45 minute walk to my home.

It did take 45 minutes alright, during which I wrote this whole story in my head. I arrived home an hour into the 17th of April, my 38th birthday.

Happy birthday to me.

I will never eat an eel in my life.

It’s Official: Commissioner Reding Likes Champagne

Today, I can disclose a breaking news item: EU Commissioner Viviane Reding likes champagne.

This was announced by her spokesman Martin Selmayr today, as it became virtually clear that the extra charge you pay for calling and receiving calls on your mobile phone when travelling between European countries will be drastically slashed, in time for the summer holiday season. The EU Parliament’s Industry Committee today voted in favour of cutting these roaming charges by about 70 per cent, and if all the rest goes according to plan, the new rules will come into force in July.

“I just spoke with Commissioner Reding, who is in China, and informed her about the vote, and I can tell you that she opened a bottle of champagne after hearing about the vote”, Mr Selmayr told the amused journalists.

After a few general, more or less critical questions about the matter itself, someone in the press gallery asked:

“Um, an important distinction. Did the commissioner actually open a bottle of champagne?”

“Again, I’m surprised about your skepticism”, Mr Selmayr smurked. “If you knew Commissioner Reding, you would know that she would never miss such an opportunity”.

You can watch the whole thing by clicking here; choose “Thursday 12/04/2007”, scroll down the page and click on “12:46:01”. The all-important question about Ms Reding’s drinking habits comes at  12:53:26.

Of course, given the fierce fight the EU has put up to ensure that nothing produced outside of the Champagne region in France can be called “champagne”, one must assume that Ms Reding was able to get a genuine bottle on location, or had brought her own supply (however she managed to get that past security). Arrggh, I should have asked some kind of spanner-in-the-works question about that. Sorry, I didn’t think of that until now.