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.

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.

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.

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: Why You Should Be Worried

I write quite a lot about the current crisis in Belgium right now ultimately because it concerns every European, as it might be a foreshadow of things to come in the EU.

After the ethnic and linguistic mud-slinging from French-speakers and Flemings alike has been disregarded, all can unite around one objective fact: Belgium is an artificial geopolitical entity, imposed on its inhabitants from the top down.

It is true that there was enough public support for the idea in 1830 to set up today’s Belgium for there to be an armed uprising against the Netherlands, which the country had been part of for the last fifteen years. But that was largely a revolution in reaction to the Protestant Dutch ruling over the Catholic Belgians, and as religion has become completely marginalised in today’s Western Europe, that is no longer an issue.

Rather, the superpowers of those days found it convenient to have an excuse to put another buffer zone in the middle of what was already – and would become for more than another hundred years – themain battlefield of Europe, one of the most strategic locations. The formation of the new state quickliy became a matter for the ruling elite, both domestic and international, and was thereafter imposed onto the people within its boundaries. There was little or no public say in the process, and even when democracy did catch on, large groups felt marginalised and unable to participate on equal terms.

All of this – all of this – could be written to describe the history of the European Union as well. The formation turning from a great idea into becoming a matter only for a ruling class; the lack of public say, the general apathy before the whole idea instead of healthy patriotism, the endless compromises to make everybody happy that eventually make nobody happy. The allocation of public funds from one end to another, leading to frustration among the payers and apathy and subsidy dependency among the receivers. The endless corruption that bit by bit undermines whatever public support there might have remained, and bit by bit reinforces the image of the state/union as a playground for a faceless nomenclatura, which is irrelevant to the citizens’ everyday lives. And so on, and so on.

In Belgium, this is resulting in anger among many, which should not be taken lightly. However, again, much of today’s Belgian crisis is also seemingly exploited by the political parties, who are probably more at odds with each other than their voters are. This is also fully possible in the EU, where political parties who play on people’s disappointment with what the state/union has done for them – or rather, not done for them – can quickly gain ground, and cause devastation once they have done so.

This should not be brushed off. The multi-faceted Belgium has been hailed as a model for how the EU in all its diversity could function – but its dysfunctions could in equal amount become a sad model for future tensions in Europe as well.

We may not be there yet, but national leaders in the EU member states would be wise to monitor the disintegration of Belgium very, very closely, and ask themselves some seriously tough questions on how to avoid this happening in the EU as a whole. 

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.

Clock Wise

Great Britain – emphasis, as always, on Great – is an island floating around about half way across the Atlantic. Indeed, if you look realy close, it’s probably not too far from Martha’s Vineyard. At least if you believe some Britons, the kind who seriously believe that Britain should leave the European Union and join the NAFTA.

I was reminded about this wackiness when reading some of the comments to this interesting column by Anatole Kaletsky in today’s The Times:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/anatole_kaletsky/article2780647.ece

Why should Britain be one hour after the European continent, he asks, when this only leads to unnecessary problems? Companies can’t communicate with each other because they work different hours, especially when it comes to the question of when to have lunch.

At first, it seemed as if he had made a point. After all, a truthful map will reveal the horrible truth that my dear home country is not only that great in size after all, but that it is in fact – oh, perish the thought – more north than west of much of Europe. It is in fact east of Spain, which is one hour ahead.

Bah! sneer the commentators. Why should we adapt to that stupid European Union? Our ties with America are far more important; let’s not make the time difference with the US larger than it is already, they howl, instantly forgetting that the overwhelming majority of Britain’s business is done with other EU countries.

But then, as it dawned on me as I continued to read the comments, why do we mess with this shifting of clocks back and forth at all?

Twice a year, we all engage in this quite ridiculous event of all pretending that it’s A o’clock instead of B o’clock. In order to save daylight time, we are old, only to find ourselves quitting Daylight Saving Time during the part of the year when daylight is at its scarcest.

The question is simple: Why don’t we just change our active hours instead?

It’s such a sign of the arrogance of mankind that our immediate response is to decide to force reality to follow our lifestyles instead of the other way round.

Let the time follow the time zones that the Earth’s rotation dictates, even if it does mean that we have to accept the painful truth that we live across a globe, not a flat map where you could shine daylight on everyone a the same time. If you do need to do business with Seattle or Tokyo, adjust your working hours accordingly. And if you cherish daylight, make the effort of actually rolling out of bed a little earlier in the morning.

And as for the lunch thing, well, like I’ve said before, the real time difference across the EU is not between East and West but between North and South, and no clock-shifting could ever change that.

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?

Across The Great Divide

Swedish writer and former foreign correspondent Herman Lindqvist once claimed that there is a time difference of about three hours in Europe – not between east and west, but between north and south.

An astronomical impossibility as this may seem, it is still a fully observable cutural phenomenon. For while the Portuguese have their breakfast, the Swedes have their lunch. While the Norwegians have their breakfast, the Italians sleep. And while the Finns put on their pajamas, the Spaniards work, and work, and work, and eventually party a bit into the night.

I should not be surprised, then, to discover how the SMS messages that the European Union’s rotating Presidency countries send out to Brussels correspondents, about various media-related issues, suddenly started arriving about three hours later than usual once the Portuguese took the helm in July. While text messages were strictly confined to office hours – Germanic office hours, that is – during the preceding Finnish and German presidencies, it happens every now and then that messages drop late at night from the Portuguese. Once I got a message about some statement or another as I was going to bed. And today I had an invitation to a “Presidency IGC debriefing” time stamped at 19:41 – on a Sunday evening, that is.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian companies ooze vitriloc remarks about laziness and mañana culture as their calls to Mediterranian business go unanswered due to siesta. Only to have similar accusations cast after them about lazy pampered welfare state sluggards when their counterparts in Southern Europe try in vain to reach them to do business when it’s only eight o’clock in the evening.

A few moments each day, they actually do all work at the same time. Which is when the Britons let their English lion maul the new EU Reform Treaty for being a stealth Constitution that will covertly wring the ruling scepter out of old proud Britannia’s hands – where only Sun and Daily Mail editors still see it held, by the way – while the French pound their fists and demand that Britain starts taking its responsibility and pay its member fees in full, rather than chicken out from their obligations, so that the new Eastern European member states’ farmers can enjoy subsidies that will enable them, too, to sit on their hands and watch their fields become overgrown, just like their Western colleagues, while cereal prices smash through the ceiling and skyrocket further out into the universe for lack of supply to meet the demand.

Maybe it’s just as well after all that they’re all kept apart a little.

(Note to Swedish readers: This blog post is partly written in an homage style to the late great Torsten Ehrenmark.)