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.

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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.

Why Are We Here?

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter today puts its finger on a sore spot: Why have an EU Summit right now at all?

The whole idea of inserting a third summit each year was part of the Lisbon strategy, intended at boosting EU competivity, a (traditionally) unsigned editorial notes. However, it has turned out that the EU manages to boost its capacity for increased competition power perfectly well without the politicians telling people how to do it, thank you very much, and the spring summit is increasingly becoming a bit of a yawn generator. Even Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, concedes on his blog that “this meeting with the European Council will possibly not go down in history as one of the very biggest”.

However, Dagens Nyheter fumes (to the general amusement of my Swedish colleagues here at the EU Summit press room, who have spent the morning speculating who actually wrote the vitriolic editorial in question – the writer was more or less officially identified as Barbro Hedvall), the EU cannot back down from holding spring summits now, because that would be seen as a loss of prestige and – more importantly – a source of speculation about why the leaders wouldn’t want to meet each other, especially who didn’t want to meet who.

I’m not so sure I agree with the criticism. After all, it is never a bad idea that people – especially at high levels – get together and talk. Even if they currently may have little to talk about, there might come other times when having an institutionalised forum may be crucal, instead of wasting precious energy on procedure and formalities. After all, that is what the EU is all about – defusing possible points of conflict before they flare up.

And therein lies a PR problem, because it is always difficult to sell to the general public that we have avoided conflicts to the point where they never happened. “What conflicts?” we EU citizens ask, oblivious to the long and bloody history of our part of the world, where war between the people groups now represented at the negotiation table was the norm, not the exception.

I do realise that the bloodless summits require lots of travelling, security arrangements, and so on. But I’ll take that over war every time.

Summit Time, And The Living Is Easy

I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with Slovenian ham. I’ve just put down two delicious wraps with that and some other stuff in it, and it was lovely. But for some reason, they were the ones that most people here hadn’t touched at all.

In other words: It’s EU Summit time again, and I’m back at the press centre munching free sandwiches, traditionally handed out by the current Presidency so as to avoid insane queues where everybody is trying to pay for their meals. There’s hundreds and hundreds of journalists here, and any attempt to charge money for the food would probably lead to queues the length of Belgium. Where the last in line might get his/her orders in time for the next summit.

The first and second time I visited this event, the catering consisted of incredibly dry baguette rolls with dry chees or ham. Puffs of dust came out as you put your teeth into them. And – they were the only choice.

But that, I understood later, was all due to the presidency of the day, which shall remain unnamed for their culinary crime. Later presidencies have improved the snacks, introduced more variations, and the Portuguese last time offered some quite decent rolls with camembert, which raised my spirits considerably.

The current Slovenian presidency has rightly taken the opportunity to boost interestin its national cuisine, I realised as I just snuck into the press centre to check things out (and, frankly, to get a free snack).  As I said, the Slovenian ham was delicious, and I do hope that my colleagues’ disinclination to try something new and daring doesn’t put this and future presidencies off their attempts to offer something more interesting than air-dried cotton posing as bread.

Let’s see, who’s next in line…. aha, France.  Hmmm. If they do not live up to and beat du pain, du vin, et du Boursin, I shall slam them at their national pride on this blog, eternally shaming them for betraying their proud cuisine. Or something like that.

But first’ I gotta get another one of them ham wraps.

Full Of Holes

The Netherlands have announced that they will not support the new EU budget, when the EU Ministers of Finance are to vote on it next week. The reason is that the Netherlands find the budget proposal too full of faults.

It seems that the Netherlands will be the only country opposing it, though, so it will have little importance, according to Het Financieele Dagblad. However, there are rumours that other countries consider similar opposition.

I don’t know which is the most worrying: an EU budget full of holes or a majority of its member states supporting it.

The Princess And I

Friday’s press conference with the Swedish Prime and Foreign Ministers offered a rare opportunity to chat for a moment with the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria as well.

(I say that with the sort of feigned disinterest that befits a journalist who wants to appear as if he is constantly rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty of this world. The awkward truth is that I spend a lot of time in the privacy of my working chambers at home, but don’t tell anyone, will you).

Princess Victoria has been a virtually constant intern at the various levels of Swedish government, preparing for her forthcoming role as Head of State, and had just spent a week serving at the Swedish permanent representation to the EU. There, she kept a low profile, but was still admitted to the Summit as a minister, and allowed to sit in on even the most sensitive of deliberations.

She was not part of the concluding press conference, merely there as an observer. Consequently, she snuck in along one wall after the press conference had started, together with assorted members of the Swedish delgation, and sat on one of the chairs lined up along the wall around the large conference table around which we journalists and the ministers were distributed. It only so happened that she sat right behind me.

There I was, slumped belly-up in those extremely comfortable chairs designed for hours and hours of intra-community haggling, and as the full truth of the event dawned on me, a few TV cameras were already pointing my direction to get a glimpse of the Princess behind me. With me in the forefront, due to the camera angles likely making me appear even larger than in real life, and with my ‘deployed vehicle airbag’ prominently positioned.

In other words: those TV pictures would have showed the future Queen of Sweden only partly visible, peeping forward behind by my big fat tummy.

I checked – it seemed that the TV people were wise enough not to use those images. I call that professional discretion.

The Economist worries about whatever she was doing there, oblivious to the fact that she as Queen will be chairing the Permanent Foreign Comittee of the Swedish Parliament, and thus has every reason to be well-informed from the start. I don’t, because after the press conference, a few of us of course took the chance to exchange a few words with her. She seemed genuinely interested and started questioning us about how we work at these events, in a way that was either professionally faked or professionally inquisitive. While not being much of a royalist, I must confess to havng had a very positive impression of how seriously she seems to take her role.

However, I do regret missing the obvious question that we journalists shared (but didn’t ask her then either) last time she was a Government intern visiting Brussels: “So, how does the Ambassador take his coffee?”

The Cake Was Awful And The Champagne Was Gone

I promised you an update on the Portuguese fiesta at the EU Summit… Well, easily done: The cake was awful and the champagne was gone.

The feast was to commence at 1430, but it only so happened that France was suddenly announcing its press conference to that very time as well. I thought I might go and get a glimpse and a feel of Monsieur Sarkozy, and in any case I wasn’t going to stay for that long. Or so I thought.

The room was packed well beyond its capacity, the heat from people and TV spotlights reaching corresponding levels, and oxygen had run out already before I arrived. I stood and waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, I the floor started swaying under my feet and I realised I was about to faint, so I managed against all odds to find a free seat. There, I promptly nodded off, only to awake a few moments later to the buzz of a text message arriving in my cell phone and realising that absolutely nothing had happened. An hour and fifteen minutes had gone by and still no Sarkozy. (And no, he hadn’t come and gone while I was dozing).

The text message informed me that there was going to be a press conference with the Swedes immediately, and since I work for a Swedish news organisation, I decided for that to more important. After all, the Swedes usually do turn up on time and all that. So, I went up to the next floor in the EU Council bastion, and waited there together with the entire Swedish press corps for another quarter of an hour or so, before Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s press secretary arrived and informed us that the whole thing was postponed because all the headsofstatengovernment were still in their meeting.

I took a lift back down to the press centre, gleefully passing my French-speaking colleagues on my way, thinking that they’d probably remain sitting there until who knows when, oblivious to the fact that theman they were waiting for still hadn’t risen form the conference table yet. Good time then to have a bite and a sip.

Or so I thought.

It turned out that the champagne had all been consumed by then, by my thirsty colleagues, in spite of alarge group of them being stuck in the Fench briefing room (and another contingent in the German next doors). There were some sweaty pieces of cake left, which I sampled. Some dried-out excuse for a fruit cake, completely clad in what is best described as something between jelly candy and conserved fruit. It felt like eating dried packaging foam with glazed chewing gum.

Blah.