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.

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.

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.

You Better Come Home Speedy Gonzales

Sitting at the Press Centre at the EU Summit, I just can’t get the old Pat Boone hit “You Better Come Home Speedy Gonzales” out of my head. Which is of course because his namesake, Spanish ex-Premier Felipe Gonzalez, has just been appointed head of the reflection group that is to ponder the future of the European Union. By his side: a former Latvian Pesident, Vaira Vike-Freiberga – and the former cell phone giant Nokia leader Jorma Ollila.

Ollila was expected and Ms Vike-Freiberga too, but Mr Gonzalez had been ruled out as someone who was as unlikely as Tony Blair to take the helm. Instead, he was chosen to lead the group.

Upon hearing the news, a colleague remarked: “Isn’t there a song about ‘come home Felipe Gonzalez’?” She was soon corrected, of course, but then that old song’s hook was burying itself into at least my cortex: Na-NAAAAA, na na na naaa na na na NAAAAAA, na na na na na na na naaaaaa, na na na na na na na naaaaaaaaaaaaaa…”

Will France Leave The EU?

When the EU had twelve members, one never went against the will of France. When the EU expanded to 15, it could happen. When it went to 25, it became a regular habit. Now, some suspect that France might even leave the EU.

That’s how a top diplomat explained France’s lost glory a few days ago, as a backdrop to why France will be snuck around at tomorrow’s EU Summit in Brussels.

Tomorrow will be the first summit since 1991 where there will be no reference to enlargement in the final document. The reason is, plain and simple, that the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, does not want to admit Turkey, which is next in line to join the club.

This has created outrage already at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting earlier this week, where the Swedish Foreign Secretary Carl Bildt demanded that there be a clearer reference to agreements already made at the EU Summit last December. All seemed to agree – except France.

“My friend Bernard Kouchner was forced to argue without one single matter-of-fact argument – only referring to what France could accept and not accept”, Mr Bildt writes himself about the event on his blog.

However, what France Can Accept and Not Accept does not mean anything anymore internationally, which still seems to be an insight yet to be made in Paris, where the prevailing outlook appears to be that we are still at the year 1777 or so.

Indeed, the French wriggling is already making Mr Sarkozy lose credibility in EU circles, and may even lead to his country losing even more influence in the 27-nation bloc. But due to the various requirements of unanimity in EU procedures, France cannot be completely run over, which is why the rest of the nations will tiptoe around the Turkey issue at this summit.

“We want to avoid a harsh discussion about enlargement at the summit that might cause Sarkozy to say, ‘I’ve had it’, and slam the door on Turkey”, an unnamed top diplomat tells the Financial Times (using words that sound identical to how a top diplomat described the situation to me a few days ago. It makes me suspect that it might very well have been the same person, but that’s beside the point).

But all this is now raising suspicions in EU circles that France may indeed be considering to withdraw from the EU it once so boastfully percived itself of leading. Instead, the reasoning goes, France will look south to form a Mediterranean club of some sort.

It sounds like a wild assumption. But given the way France has behaved so far, it isn’t all that far-fetched if the country wants to put an end to its humiliation – especially since the humiliation hurts the inflated French pride more than it would most other countries.

Meanwhile, it is soon time for France to take the rotating presidency. That may be an interesting time indeed.

Cowardy-Cowardy-Custard

…as we used to chant when I was a little boy in London at anyone backing down from anything scary. This time, I’d be happy to yell that abuse at the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Mr. Brown has a delicate problem. He can’t be seen signing the new EU Constitution Reform Treaty in Lisbon today together with his 26 colleagues from the other EU member states, because that would offend Eurosceptics in his party and in his country (like The Sun, endlessly campaigning against the Constitution Reform Treaty for wringing national sovereignty out of the British government’s hands). He can’t not sign, because that would be too much of a snub that would throw Britain’s position within the EU off balance, and because he has painted himself into the proverbial corner of speaking too much of the document as being just another treaty that doesn’t need to be put to a referendum in Britain, and therefore musnt’t be rejected by Britain at the signatory stage.

So what does he do – choose one opinion and be damned? Nope. He is sending his Foreign Secretary David Milliband to participate in the signatory ceremony, staying at home with the worst excuse in British political history: a schedule conflict has regrettably prohibited him from attending; he will be in Parliament answering questions instead. But, after that, he will fly out to Lisbon to join the rest of the gang for a few drinks – oh, what a coincidence, just after they’ve signed the document – and put his name on it in private. In secret, almost, or at least well away from all the drums and trumpets of the main event.

So acts a spineless amoeba who will avoid taking a stand even at the cost of making an utter, utter fool of hiself.

And to think that this person is to lead Britain instead of having custard pies rightl thrown at him.

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.

To Reset Day, Press Which Button

It’s not even 10 am this Monday morning and it seems that everything has gone wrong already.

I’m not going to bore you with the details. Let’s just say that I would like to reiterate my request for a Reset button to be used on such mornings, to have them rebooted.

Where do you file such a request? Is the EU capable of introducing one?

It’s Time To Learn Slovenia’s Top Domain

In 28 days, Slovenia will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union for the firs six months of 2008 – and for the first time ever, since Slovenia has only been a member of the EU for 1,311 days as we speak. Time then to start learning some basic facts about this often forgotten country – such as what its Internet top level domain (TLD) is.

The presidencies usually set up web sites with information on current events, calendars of meetings, press accreditations, and of course a little marketing of their country, using the legend http://www.euYEAR.TLD That is, the current Portuguese presidency’s web site, for the last half of 2007, is found at http://www.eu2007.pt, where “pt” of course is the TLD for Portugal.

Today, I was going online looking for the Slovenian presidency site, which of course would be found at http://www.eu2008 something. But what on Earth is the TLD for Slovenia?

My deepest apologies to any Slovenians reading this, but you must bear with those of us whose school atlases did not contain your country or any reference to it when we last studied geography. And to make things more complicated, your doubtlessly fine nation became independent roughly around the same time as Slovakia did. Slovenia, Slovakia, sorry to say, fo those of us who have visited neither, confusions are bound to happen. (Especially those of us who seem to have a gerontological mental age, argghh.)

In fact, there is a probability that many Europeans – not to mention non-Europeans – will have little clue where Slovenia is. After all, can anybody name any Slovenian celebs? The name of the Prime Minister? Any cities?

I quite agree with The Economist, which pointed out in this blog post that the rotating EU Presidency after all does have some advantages for smaller countries to get some publicity they would otherwise not achieve. Let’s hope that Slovenia will be able to lure some interest over to itself during the next few months.

So, I finally found the Slovenian Presidency’s site; the TLD is .si, so you can take a sneak peek at what Slovenia will have to offer the EU at http://www.eu2008.si  They have, thankfully, refrained from placing music on their site,. as the Portuguese did, which is seriously irritating when you are surfing among other people and suddenly your computer goes off blasting sounds all over the place – and you can’t turn it off because the Portuguese had managed to hide the volume control at the far bottom of the page.

However, can anybody tell me what that amoeba for a logo is supposed to be??

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.

Can Your Prime Minister Write? Watch The Web For Proof

The EU has – in an act of breathtaking madness – decided to push through with flying its 27 Heads of Government (accompanied by some Heads of State) to Lisbon on December 13 to sign the Lisbon Treaty, only to fly them all back to Brussels for a summit the day after.

I got the formal press information on the matter by text message (SMS) yesterday, which stated that there will be no press conference, but the entire event can be followed on EuroNews or http://www.eu2007.pt , the Portuguese Presidency’s website.

Too bad we journalists will be unable to attend an informative press conference, then, where the questions would doubtlessly be variations of the legend “How did it feel to hold the pen?” But it is reassuring to know that we will be able to watch live on TV when our respective Prime Ministers sign their names on a piece of paper, probably the first photographic evidence that that they are capable of doing so.

After their ludicrous decision to fly themselves all across the entire continent to put a signature on a document, expectations of their capacities in general are not exactly reaching any summit levels.

Belgian Crisis: Waiting For White Smoke

“We’re still waiting for the white smoke”, one member of the Swedish delegation laconically remarked to me one late evening some time ago, as we were waiting for a meeting of the European Union’s Agriculture ministers to conclude. The same can be said about the current Belgian crisis right now, for we are all as much awaiting any sign that the conclave has reached a decision in its meetings behind firmly shut doors as those who gather outside the Vatican whenever it is time to elect a new Pope.

The difference is that right now, you could certainly speak about there being two parallel conclaves in Belgium; one currently lying fallow as it awaits the outcome of the other set up by the king. The latter will see its sovereign today, but there is little to indicate that it will have reached any progress. As has happened before, there have been signals that there might be a government in place before the turn of the year, but as I indicated, that is something we have heard before, and we have to see it to believe it.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on, and it is tempting to start advocating a similar solution as when the Catholic world had been without a Pope for three years; then, the inhabitants of Viterbo, where the conclave was held, locked the cardinals in, served them nothing but bread and water, and took the roof away from over their heads. That resulted in the election of Gregory X in 1271, as well as the decision to keep the cardinals locked in during every papal conclave ever since.

But as for now, the only one locked in is me, for my kids have a day off from school today and my wife came down with the flu this morning, so I am trying to work while keeping things together here at the same time. Hopefully it will be a little different by tomorrow so I can go se what the Brussels meeting of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was all about.

Or at least find time to have a shower.

That’s Some Expensive Ink

No, I’m not talking about InkJet printer stuff – although that’s more precious than gold, but that’s another story – but about the 27 signatures that will be placed on the European Union’s new constitution Reform Treaty on December 13.

The Portuguese, who currently hold the rotating presidency, have finalised the negotiations and have been able to have it branded The Lisbon Treaty. Thus, they want to crown their efforts by having it formally signed in Lisbon as well.

The only problem is that there is supposed to be an ordinary Summit of the EU heads of state and government on that same date – in Brussels. As is customary ever since the EU decided to place all their summits there instead of shifting them around the current presiding nation, a few years ago.

The Portuguese have flatly refused to have the precious Lisbon Treaty signed anywhere else than in Lisbon, even though it’s literally just a question of putting names on pieces of paper. Ok, so are we to move the Summit there, then?

No way, the Belgians have declared. Summits are to be held in Brussels and nowhere else, period.

The solution so far (although no final decision has been taken) is – brace yourselves – that the 27 EU leaders will first fly to Lisbon on December 13 to write their names on a piece of paper. Immediately thereafter, they will all fly to Brussels to resume the rest of the Summit.

No, I am not joking. I do realise that this is hard to believe, so let me link to some other coverage of this outrageous idea, which you can find by clicking here and here.

135 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the estimated footprint of these 77,000 kilometres of unnecessary extra travel – just as the EU has decided to reduce CO2 output by 20 per cent. And all, once again, for 27 people to write their names on a piece of paper.

All in the name of national pride.

While you all ponder on why on Earth they can’t just e-mail the final draft around, and tag it electronically, I might add that these precious signatures may be rendered useless, because the Irish, for instance, are still undecided whether or not to vote in favour of it at the subsequent referendum. A few setbacks like that is what killed the previous Constitution, and could very well do so again.

Moreover, the other 26 EU leaders could find themselves turning up in Lisbon between flights only to discover that the 27th can’t sign or maybe isn’t there at all, because there is currently no guarantee that Belgium will have a functioning government by then. In such a case, Belgium will be unable to sign, leaving the other 26 with some unexpected spare time to go shopping in Lisbon or whatever.

And to add insult to injury… they will all be in Lisbon anyway a few days earlier for the EU-Africa summit, but the Portuguese have refused to allow any signing then.

If I am dreaming, then could you please wake me up.

Ghosts In The Machine

One of the more eerie things that happen whenever EU ministers meet is the Commisson spokespersons’ habit of suddenly materialising in the press room, seemingly out of nowhere. You’re sitting there by your computer, deeply immersed in one important world problem or another (such as whom to poke next on Facebook), and suddenly you glance up and there they are, surrounded by a group of journalists frantically taking notes.

You quickly get up and join the crowd and find yourself getting a number of bits and pieces of inside information from the meeting itself, which is held behind closed doors. The Commission spokespeople are present at the meetings, and can therefore give tell you exactly what is going on. Those spokespeople who have worked as journalists themselves before switching jobs are the best, since they’re used to verbatim note-taking. Their information is one of the reasons why it is always better to cover the councils on location, rather than trying to do it from home.

However, you can’t help but wonder exactly where they come from. They literally seem to crawl out of the woodwork (or concrete, rather), or materialise out of thin air. Do they have a Star Trek-emulating beamer, able to just zap them into any place? Or are they in fact astral bodies? Are they at all present at the meetings, as I have assumed so far, or are they just invisibly hovering around the delegates, reading their notes or perhaps even their minds? Are they spying over my shoulder as I write this? Or do they only manifest themselves when enough journalists collectively start longing for some news? Are we thus able to invoke them on other occasions too?

The latter would be of a particular advantage, because they’re never there otherwise when you really need them.

Pole Postion

“Who’s representing Poland?” is the standing question here at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries council in Luxembourg. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows.

Poland had a general election on Sunday, and the ruling party’s majority was wiped out by a landslide victory for the opposition. Of course, there is no new government in place yet – it seems as if there will be coalition negotiations – but on Tuesday, Poland is supposed to take part in discussions over fishery quotas.

The problem, as I have already written in this blog, is that Poland is already allowing itself a virtually unlimited quota, as the previous government refused to stop pirate fisheries, and Poland is supposed to be a key player at this meeting. But it also seems that Poland will have a new and more EU-friendly government, and the talk here is that the other member states wouldn’t want to come down too hard on such a government for fear of alienating them.

Meanwhile, a delegate confided that the black-market fisheries is probably a far bigger threat to e.g. cod stocks than the regular fish quotas, overly generous as they may seem.  So something has to be done – but who is going to do it?

On a more positive note, delegates have had troubles hiding their joy at the change of government in Poland. “Yess!” is a word that probably describes the sentiment among many in an accurate way.

Signal To Noise

I just woke everyone up here at the press centre in the Luxembunker.

It’s some time after 19.00 in the evening as I write this, and the journalists here are summing up today’s events at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. That woldn’t take very long, so the calm spreading out here is considerable, and most of us will soon be retreating to our hotel rooms.

That is the kind of nocturnal setting against which I managed to produce today’s biggest noise here. I have had some problems with my computer, which doesn’t want to correspond with the headset I use to make calls via Skypa. So while searching the computer for a solution, I did the mistake of turning on a volume control that I knew from earlier on that I should have kept set to zero.

To cut a long story short, the result – when I some time later unplugged my headset – was a monumental feedback noise. A sharp and penetrating signal sound that would have made most people think that the fire alarmhad gone off. And to make matters worse – my computer froze in that state.

Dozens and dozens of pairs of eyes were staring at me as I frantically tried to kill or muffle the sound. I even considered shoving the computer into its bag and rushing outside, but maybe the security guards would have had some suspicions about that.

Eventually, I was able to quiet the computer by physically ripping the battery out. I then tried very hard to pretend as if it was raining, which has its difficulties when you’re indoors.

Well, at least I woke them up.

Playing With The Travelling Band

The travelling band commonly known as the European Union this month has its minsterial meetings in Luxembourg again (yes, indeed at the ghastly Luxembunker pictured to the right), and I will be playing along Monday and Tuesday as a reporter at the Agriculture and Fisheries council. (I wish I were playing with a real travelling band instead, especially when reading about old friends doing exactly that, but that’s another story.)

On Tuesday, the ministers are supposed to discuss fisheries, a common source of discontent not only because the ministers consistently fail to agree on quotas small enough to actually give fish stocks a chance to survive, but also because there has been widespread pirate fishing that compound the problem.

Notably from Poland, where the government has openly said that it does not intend to do one whit about it, because it believes that the fears for fish stocks are exagerrated. In short, they are allowing themselves an unlimited quota on the expense on every other nation around the Baltic. Marine harvest state terrorism is a concept that one is tempted to use.

However, don’t expect the Polish delegation to receive more than a symbolic thrashing about it, because Poland held general elections on Sunday and it seems that there is a huge possibility that there will be a change of guard there. And then, the process has to start all over again, with a new government which can always claim that it shouldn’t have to live up to the previous one’s agreements.

In the meantime, the EU is rattling its sabres (all two and a half of them), insisting that it will take deterrent measures against fishermen who can’t keep their tackle under control. Draconian measures are being considered, including a black list – a piece of paper listing of offending vessels – and a ban on selling catches that have bene landed outside the quota.

I bet the Pirates of the Baltic are quaking with fear.

Wise Men Say

Lo and behold, the EU leaders actually did manage to agree on a new constitution sorry, Reform Treaty. Already on Thursday night, that is, not, as I erroneously wrote in a previous blog post, during this weekend. I must have expected negotiations to drag on into the unknown hours, as always, but this time they were finished already at 2 am.

That’s such a stupid macho thing to do, by the way. Do they really think that we are impressed by them squabbling on into the night, emerging red-eyed at some hour no-one can imagine? Especially since they usually don’t get started before late in the afternoon? Is it supposed to be better to negotiate at night, and look tough and uncompromising, than to get some sleep and take discussions with all your mental capacities in place?

The current negotiations about the future Belgian government have been dancing to the same tune, speaking of that. Every other day, we are told on the news that an agreement has been made after hard negotiations at 3 am… 3.30 am… and so on. RUBBISH! I don’t give a toss for any agreement that’s constructed at that hour. Don’t try to tell me that it’s supposed to be better than anything hammered out by people who are awake and alert. And bearing in mind that nocturnal negotiations are usually staged to look nocturnal, when they didn’t have to be, it’s all such a ridiculous attempt at looking potent to the public that it makes my stomach turn.

Anyway. I’m not going to immerse myself in the details of the new constitution sorry, Reform Treaty – there is already, as always, an excellent account of it on EUObserver which you can read by clicking here. However, I do note that in the margin of things, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s idea of setting up a panel of “wise men”, to examine the future of the EU in the long to very long term, has been all but dismissedby EU Commissioner Olli Rehn.

I quite understand him. Where in the EU machinery would you actually find any wise men?

Polish Parliament

From 1652 to 1791, the Polish parliament, the Sejm, practised what is known as liberum veto. Each deputy had the right to stop a decision single-handedly, and decisions could only be taken unanimously. This is usually considered one of the reasons why Poland was eventually defeated and parted. In Swedish, this has led to the generic saying “Polish Parliament” (polsk riksdag) as a by-word for any type of anarchy or chaos.

Funny, then, that it is the Polish leadership that is now trying to resuscitate a simliar principle on European Union level. But at this weekend’s informal EU Summitin Lisbon, which is supposed to unify the Union’s leaders around the EU’s new constitution  sorry, Reform Treaty, the Polish twin leaders are bringing a proposal that small minorities should be able to block decisions.

That is probably an attempt that will be applauded on some British editorial pages. However, the backlash on the longer term is of course that once the impotence of such a system is becoming evident, there is a great possibility that there will be calls for even more power to majority votes than today.

However, the question still remains whether or not the constitution  sorry, Reform Treaty will eventually be adopted at all, since it requires the signature of the heads of government – and Belgium still doesn’t have one.

It’s not due to be signed this time, but rather at the December official summit. We shall see whether or not there is a Belgian govermnent in place by then.

And The Eyes Of The World Are Watching Now

The EU Commission, the EU Presidency and the Council of Europe today spoke out as united against the death penalty under all circumstances.

“Death penalty is against human dignity. We want to give visibility to the efforts of the many Non-Governmental Organisations and individuals who strive, day after day, towards the abolition of the death penalty”, said EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, while Commission Vice President Franco Frattini added:

“The death penalty is a wild and revengeful parody of justice. Today, we can affirm with pride that death penalty has no place within the European model and confirm our commitment to promote universal abolition”.

I have two words for this: “Hear, hear”.

For those of you so inclined, I will add a fill-out-the-blank from Amnesty’s web site: “In 2004, 97 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, the Viet Nam and” … which country?

I leave that to you to figure out, as well as the answer to the question whether or not that has been efficient in deterring crime in that country, compared to crime rates in other similar countries with no capital punishment.

Who Would You Like To Pay To Not Work?

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean “who would you like to bribe so you don’t have to work”. Rather, who would you like to pay to make them stop working?

That’s an interesting dimension of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (one which is due to be done away with today by the way), which BBC correspondent Mark Mardell happily explores in a great blog post which you can read by clicking here. Since it’s already posible to pay farmers for not cultivating parts of their lands, he argues, why stop there? Why not pay other professionals for not doing their jobs?

For instance, I could think of quite a number of politicians, whom I would be quite happy to pay for them not to do any more work.

Oh wait a minute… I already do.

Oh, bother.

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

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.

Told You So!

Well, it’s Friday evening at 10pm, and the EU Summit is still going on. Judging from the latest reports, they’ll be haggling long into Saturday as well, and if you were planning to have a European Prime Minister for dinner on Sunday, don’t be too surprised if s/he doesn’t turn up.

They’re slowly being roasted elsewhere, a few storeys up in the Justus Lipsius Building on Rue de la Loi, Brussels.

I thought this summit would be lengthy, but I must say I am surprised at how long it seems that it will be. Apparently, Britain’s and Poland’s objections have tunred out to be harder to overcome than expected, and now France has thrown another spanner in the works – or should I say “wooden clog”, sabot in French, the throwing of which into machines during early Industrialism coined the term sabotage – by seemingly tried to delete the EU’s focus on free competition.

This is seriously outrageous. If there’s anything the EU has got right – apart from  being able to prevent war in pour part of the world – then it is to fight for good competition for the benefit of European consumers. Just look at how they’ve take on Microsoft, noone else has done that! And if there’s something France is god at, it’s state-aid, protectionism, and anything else that distorts free competition. And now Monsieur Sarkozy wants that to become EU policy?

Sure, he has all kinds of explanations why this isn’t really the case, and so on. But I get the creeps when the first effort of the new French President is to overthrow the good work the EU is doing and plunge it down into the mire of oligarchy.

Not to mention that the EU has problems already with this summit.

It’s Going To Take The Weekend

Now I’ve heard it from one of the highest possible sources: This EU Summit will probably go on and on into the weekend.

Not even the official programme says much about Friday’s schedule, unusually enough, but satisfies with the legend “Further information on the day’s programe and timetable will be sent later”. Which, as I said, was confirmed by a top source this morning.

That’s great. That means I won’t have to be here this evening, but can sneak out soon.