Belgian Crisis: Bet On The Split

While the Belgian government is today wriggling over the constituency issue of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) which once again might throw the country into a government-less limbo and renewd chaos, you can play an online dead pool game to predict when Belgium will cease to exist. The prize: your weight in Belgian French Fries.

“The symptoms are pointing towards a terminal disease”, unknown pranksters write as they invite you to bet on when Belgium will die. You can place your bet by clicking here: http://www.wanneergaatbelgiedood.be/

The organisers promise to give the winning prediction his/her weight in frites, the Belgian invention that has travelled the world under the name of French fries; yet another example of how this country has failed to gain a profile of its own. (The world apart from the UK, that is, where Belgian French fries are called ‘chips’ and chips are called ‘crisps’, because we love to confuse things, but let’s not get technical now).

Predictions range (as of yet) from today’s date, May 8, to July 1, 2013. “Flanders first!! then the frites…!” writes Mathias, who put that date down, while “Better late than never” is the verdict from Eric de Bel, who anticipates the split at September 17 this year.

I refrain from casting a vote, being an impartial journalist.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government is amking another attempt at forcing a vote in Parliament over the BHV issue. The government is at a 50-50 per cent chance/risk of having to resign shold things not go their way, which would mean that the executive body that was so painfully forged dduring nine months of anguish will have stayed in power for only two months. Since that govermnent almost never happened, and was the end of the road or a lengthy consitutional crisis, the resulting problems may prove too difficult to overcome, and early predictions on the demise of the Belgian state may therefore prove correct after all.

Stranger things have happened.

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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.

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.

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.