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.

Euromyths Revisited

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

It Stinks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigate, But Not Us

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

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

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

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

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

Fa(r)cebook

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

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

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

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

Ho hum, this may be very entertaining.

Come On Baby Light My Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody started laughing.

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

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

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

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

Someone Stole My Seat!

It wasn’t enough that I went to the EU Summit press centre the day before yesterday and reserved the last available workstation. Today, as I arrived here, someone had taken my place.

I’m not going to make a big song and dance about it – it works to sit on a sofa, too, as long as the WiFi connection works.

I’ll just refer to my nice colleagues here as vultures and leave it at that.