Money Back Guarantee

Believe it or not, but the European Union does actually have a money back guarantee.

I’m not joking. The only catch is that you don’t get your money back if it isn’t working; but only if they haven’t managed to spend all the money you paid them during the last year.

Consequently, the EU is now paying back a total of EUR 1.5bn to its 27 member states, distributed according to the states’ gross national income (GNI). In other words, the most money to the fattest cats in the club, but that’s beside the point.

The full distribution list can be found here.

The EU Commission this year brags that this year’s budget surplus is the smallest ever, insisting that this is evidence of its excellent capacities forplanning and not asking too much in membership fees.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that they’ve been better than ever at wasting our money away this year, and that it’s a failure that they aren’t able to return much more of our money.

I’l leave it to you to decide which version you prefer.

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.

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.

Liar Liar

This is the face of a man who seems to be about to lie himself out of a job.

It became only too clear on Thursday, as fresh new information about his – EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen’s – affair with his chiefof staff Petra Erler became public. German media have quoted a party colleague saying that he confessed the affair to her, and you can find a picture of Mr Verheugen and Ms Erler hand in hand here. Click here for another picture of the two, which is said to depict Mr Verheugen leaving Ms Erler’s home in the early morning of August 2 this year.

And yet, the Commissioner has the NERVE to maintain the same story as always: I have nothing to say… my marriage is a private business.

Excuse me, Commissioner, but while your MARRIAGE may be private, your RELATIONS with your STAFF is not. Especially if they turn out to have affected their appointments to their jobs.

That is something I and several other journalists pointed out to the Commission’s spokespeople at Thursday’s press conference, only to be met but the usual stonewalling, a number of variants of the old “No Comments” line.

At least, we finally got them to repeat Mr Verheugen’s statement that he did not have an affair with Ms Erler “at the time of her appointment”. (No word on whether that happened before or after.)

That means that he has now nailed himself to his story, which is becoming increasingly impossible as details surface. There are pictures and witnesses to tell a different story already, and there will probably be more to come. His wife has publicly admitted that she is leaving him.

(The latter fact made Mr Verheugen’s story even more hollow, as he clung on to the statement “I and my wife have agreed not to discuss this in public”. Well, newsflash: Your wife just did. Doesn’t that make you a liar once again?)

“He won’t survive this”, a German-speaking journalist remarked to me as we were leaving the press conferece. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that Mr Verheugen is lying half a billion Europeans straight to their faces

I and my fellow journalists (and European citizens) do not intend to hold any moral tribunal here. If Mr Verheugen is having extramarital affairs, it technically has nothing to do with his job. However, if he is having an affair or has had an affair with his chief of staff, it most certainly has everything to do with his job. Moreover, it is also a blatant breach of the Code of Conduct laid down not by us, but by the European Union itself.

The Commission’s President Barroso now faces the following choices:

1) Either he believes his Commissioner’s version. Then he is sadly gullible, and risks his own job if proven wrong.

2) Or he chooses to disbelieve him. Then he must sack the Commissioner.

3) Or he knows that Mr Verheugen is lying. Then he is also lying to you and me and everyone else, and equally arrogant in the notion that he or they will get away with it. Then he SHOULD lose his job.

I’m sorry for sounding enraged. But I cannot tolerate the sheer arrogance of someone shoving lies down my throat and expecting to get away with it. And the arrogance – once again, the arrogance – of how the Commissioner has so far responded to the allegations is unworthy of someone whose salary is paid forby me and half a billion other Europeans.

Do the right thing, Commissioner. At least former President Clinton had the guts to confess to his similar extramarital activities, which saved him by a hair’s breadth. If you could at least have the same courage, you might escape this sorry mess slightly less battered than what will probably now be the case.

The alternative is that you risk your job – and the rest of the Commission’s jobs as well.

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.

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.

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.

The Berlaymonster

I promised I’d write something fun for Easter about this little cottage in the middle of the EU quarters. So, here we go.

If anyone wonders why on earth Brussels ended up being the seat of the EU and the “capital of Europe”, you’re in good company. The fact is that the EU doesn’t quite know either. The formal decision was taken as late as in 1992.

Since the very beginning in 1957, there hade been the usual squabbling about who should be given the honours to host the institutions. France, Germany, Luxembourg, or somewhere else? The inability to take a decision meant that the institutions were housed wherever they could find lodging. That is one of the reasons why the EU Parliament ended up having its sessions in Strasbourg, France: they got to borrow the premises of the Council of Europe, an organisation that has nothing to do with the EU and should not be confused with the European Council.

Confused? It gets worse.

Belgium decided to lobby hard to get the institutions there, and eventually in 1968 built the EU this neat little colossus in shining grey concrete, called the Berlaymont. The EU (which was then known as the EEC) was thankful and put its Commission in it. Without buying it.

However, on one fine day in 1991, someone discovered that the building was full and flowing over with asbestos, a neat little fibre good for both preventing fires and causing lung cancer. The very next day, the Commission consequently moved out to another building nearby. Meanwhile, the entire Berlaymont was to be gutted.

That’s about the time when I first saw it in real life. EU reporting in those days continued to include images of reporters in front of this building. So I came there on rainy day in 1995 to have a look for myself… only to find the entire thing empty with the exception of the odd construction worker.

The fact that there were only a few workers in sight should have set off some alarm bells. Unfortunately, neither I nor those footing the bill got the message until someone suddenly checked their calendar and realised that quite a number of years had gone by.

In fact, it was only in 1996 that they came up with the final plans on how to do the work. Thus, it took five years only to produce the blueprints. Must have been some mighty drawings.

By then, the consortium in charge of the work had assumed the optimistic name “Berlaymont 2000”, but don’t you think that nine years were enough to complete it.

Someone else counted the costs and that wasn’t very fun reading either. By then, the EU had finally agreed to pay for the renovation by buying the building at last, which cost the Commission exactly 552,879,207 euros. The land the building stands on was purchased for an additional 1 euro; I am not sure whether or not that is included in the above figure. (But I assume that there were fierce negotiations over those last seven euros.) To be paid over 27 years.

How did they end up in that mess? Well, for a start, they couldn’t just knock what was now being known as the “Berlaymonster” and start all over again, because the entire area is a Swiss cheese perforated with road and rail tunnels. (Having demolition cause the horrible excuse for a train station next to the EU quarters cave in and implode would have been a tremendous gain for mankind, though, but that’s beside the point.)

But there was also talk about fraud and mismanagement on part of the contractor, who turned out to have been bankrupt from the very start – and, according to some reports, financially connected with the building where the Commission was being held hostage. (Now there’s an incentive for procrastination.)

It wasn’t until 2004 that the Commission could finally move back in. By then, the EU had worked its way through four Commissions, including the one that had moved out.

What the about 3,000 people working there found was quite a hi-tech spacecraft, though. Blinds have been fitted all over the facade that swivel automatically depending on the sunshine, the climate control is beyond description, and they’ve even managed to put a bit of paint on it here and there.

One of the stranger features, though, is this boat-like add-on on top of the wing closest to the Schuman roundabout. This is where the Commissioners meet every Wednesday morning. I sometimes wonder if its shape is intended to enable it to double as a lifeboat in case global warming and melting polar caps finally drench the low countries up to the 14th floor where it sits. Maybe that was what got them to start talking about climate change after all.

In the four floors underground, we, the lower standing life forms known as journalists scamper around in search for news in the undergrowth. Speaking about symbolism, you might say, although we are pampered with some of the best press services imaginable.

The only problem is that the Commission employs another 18,000 people, who cannot be fitted into this billion-euro thingy. That’s why they occupy another 60 buildings around town… and counting, as the EU grows.

Worse still, this is not the largest EU building in town. The Council has a castle across the street that’s about twice the size, the Parliament (which, remember, holds most of its sessions in France and has its secretariat in Luxembourg) has recently built an ever-swelling behemoth close by, the size of which I have still yet to comprehend, and only the other month was there yet another office block opened in the same area. Etc, etc, etc.

So… there’s probably reason to say “to be continued”.

Time for Easter now… have a happy one and let’s hear again next week.

Match Of The Day: Commission Wins On Walkover

Yesterday’s press briefing at the EU Commission ended in a mass walkout in protest. That was the climax of quite an entertaining tug-of-war between the spokesman Johannes Laitenberger and the assembled press corps, due to Tuesday’s early morning raids on several EU institutions on allegations of fraud and corruption.

I should say, this is not the first time there has been fraud scandals involving the EU; one entire Commission had to step down a few years ago in the wake of one such corruption case, and there is a general sense in Brussels today of “here we go again”.

The press room was unusually full, and Mr Laitenberger had the hopeless task of communicating the Commission’s ‘No Comments’ line.

He started on the offensive. Before allowing questions, he made a statement saying that the Commission could not comment on the ongoing investigation, and that it was all in the hands of the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF, why all questions should be put to them. And so he asked everyone to understand that there was nothing more to say.

Upon which a forest of hands shot into the air, to the general laughter from everyone.

For the next 45 minutes or so, journalist after journalist tried to press Mr Laitenberger on different aspects of the scandal, but to no avail. I have the whole match on tape and might sit down some rainy day and count how many times he repeated various variants of the message “we won’t comment on ongoing investigations… ask OLAF… they are independent and we shouldn’t get involved in their work… blah, blah, blah”.

The questions got increasingly irritated. “Why haven’t you called the OLAF and asked them to send someone here, it would only have cost a telephone call”, one French-speaking reporter asked, to the cheer and applause from about everyone else.

“OLAF is independent…blah, blah, blah”.

“You say that OLAF is independent”, another one tried, “but then you have previously invited representatives of Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, or McDonald’s here?”

(general laughter)

“25 minutes of stonewalling”, was another complaint from another journalist.

“We won’t comment on ongoing investigations… blah, blah, blah”.

“Why are those involved allowed to stay on their jobs”, asked another, who reminded us all that whistleblower Paul van Buitenen had been thrown out on his ears when he disclosed what would eventually amount to the fraud scandal that brought a commission down.

“We can’t give any details on the investigation… blah, blah, blah.”

Things got even more amusing as one of the English interpreters, whom I was listening to, was in the strange habit of pronouncing Mr Laitenberger’s first name “Your Highness” instead of “Johannnes”, when translating questions from reporters. Which only added to the fairy-tale sense of an emperor trying to convince everyone that he was not naked.

I was watching the group of Mr Laitenberger’s fellow spokesmen, who usually attend the press briefings in order to be prepared to answer any kind of questions, and they collectively looked painfully happy that it wasn’t they who had to be up there and act as the No Comment machine. Cool as yesterday’s Bratwurst, Mr Laitenberger is far better suited for that task, by the way.

Finally, Mr Laitenberger almost physically moved the press conference on to the next subject.

This triggered a mass walkout; about three fourths of the assembled journalists – an estimated 3-400 people – stood up and walked out of the room in protest.

I was not one of them, not because of my natural cowardice, but simply because I was awaiting another press briefing that was to follow immediately after. And so, the show went on with the scattered remnant, the spokesmen bravely trying to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Now that was a surreal experience.