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.

When She’s 64

As the European Parliament today votes on whether or not to approve the new EU Commissioner for Health, Androula Vassiliou, I shall take the risk of making myself rather unpopular with her by restating the fact that she is 64 years old.

Innocent as that factoid may seem, it was the source of some outrage from her designated spokesperson when people started to notice that there was no information available about her age anywhere, and reporters started to ask.

“In Greek, in our culture, it is a bit rude to ask for a woman’s age. So if you insist that much, I would suggest that you do some research on Google and you will find the CV of the commissioner and there you can find her exact age,” the EU Commission spokesperson Nina Papadoulaki said according to EUbusiness.com, claiming that she did not know her age herself. (Ms Papadoulaki didn’t know Ms Vassiliou’s age, that is).

Anyway. Mounting pressure on this ever-important issue later forced the Commission to concede that Ms Vassiliou was born on 30th November 1943, the news service reports. Even her Wikipedia article has been updated with this revealing news, I notice.

While I don’t have much time for ageism in our youth-fixated society, I simply marvel at the difficulties the Commission has at even releasing such a trivial bit of information. A woman’s age may be considered a private matter in Cyprus, but Ms Vassiliou is appointed to represent the EU as a whole – not any country – and the question of age wich may or may not shed light on her ability and willingness to fulfill her job duties for years to come is very much relevant to those of us who have to foot the bill for her salary.

Sometimes the Commission seems set to secrecy by default. And then they wonder why public support for the EU is so low.

Kyprianou Resigns

I am a bit ashamed of having missed the news; however, a quick net search reveals that so have most other media as well. EU Health Commisisoner Markos Kyprianou has resigned to join the newly elected government in his native Cyprus.

The EU Commission has nominated Androulla Vasiliou (phew, just as I had learned to spell K-y-p-r-i-a-n-o-u)  as his successor.  She is married to the former President of Cyprus, and is expected to take over Mr Kyprianou’s portfolio without further ado until the entire Commission is up for renewal in 18 months.

As with all new Commissioners, however, she must first me approved by the EU Parliament.

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.

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.