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.

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.

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.

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.

Verhofstadt For President?

Gearing up for the election of a new President of the European Commission next year, the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is emerging as a candidate who might have strong support.

Little has been said so far in public about whom the member states will appoint to head the EU’s executive body (there are no public elections to this powerful entity), and the current holder of the function. José Manuel Barroso, is expecting re-election.  But now, it seems that three-time Premier Verhofstadt might be one of the favourites.

Mr Verhofstadt, a Liberal, enjoys the backing of the Socialist party group in the EU Parliament, Metro writes quoting Le Soir, and the group, second largest in the EU Parliament with 215 out of 785 seas, is hoping to forge a centre-left coalition to support his candidacy. Mr Verhofstadt’s ideological friends, the Parliament’s liberal group, seem less enthusiastic, but will not rule out supporting him.

We shall see what will happen once the mightier movers of the Union such as the French and German governments have put forward their opinion, and Mr Verhofstadt himself has not commented or disclosed if he would be available as a candidate at all. But holding together the increasingly disparate nation of Belgium under the recent crisis might prove good exercise for anyone who would want to make 27 nations pull the same direction.

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.

This Blog Would Be Illegal

This blog would be illegal. Not only in countries like China and Burma, where the totalitarian regimes utterly restrict personal freedom of speech. But in Italy, a Western democracy, if proposals put forward by premier Romano Prodi are adopted.

Yes, the very same Romano Prodi who used to be the President of the EU Commission.

He has now proposed far-going restrictions of Italians’ right to blog, which in a nutshell means that you will have to be registered, pay taxes, work for a publisher and under the supervision of a profesisonal journalist to have the right to blog.

This is utterly and obscenely outrageous.

I am a professional journalist and my blog would perhaps pass the test. But I would openly refuse to comply with such a ridiculpous law, because it is a blatant, naked and arrogant attack on the God-given right that forms the very foundation of any democracy anywhere: Freedom of speech.

Any democracy anywhere requires the right for people to freely form their opinions, in order to participate. It requires the freedom to advocate any standpoint, in order to form an opinion in others, and it requires the freedom to take part of any standpoint, in order to form an opinion of one’s own. It is the fundamental right given to us at birth, manifested in such a way that we are born with the capacity to speak, and the capacity for learning languages.

Blogging on the Internet is nothing more than an extension of your right to speak out with your mouth; it is the 21st century equivalent of standing on an overturned soapbox in a street corner or handing out leaflets.

Yes, it comes with a lot of rubbish, but it the quality of what is said would be the criteria for whether or not to allow freedom of speech, then the politicians would be the first to be forced to shut up.

Perhaps what upsets me the most is the sheer arrogance of the Italian plans. This time, they do not even bother to try to hide behind some alleged reason, be it the fight against terrorism, indecencies om the Net, or whatever the excuse for the day is. This time, they are openly sending the message to the citizens – or, should I say, to the subjects: Freedom of speech is not a right for the common man, it is a privilege for the chosen few.

What insolence!

Why not just go the whole way and do away with democracy altogether? Why not return to the feudal system straight away? Is that what is on the agenda in the long term?

You may wonder why I rage against something that is going on in a country where I do not live. I admit, I have not even been to Italy. But a loss of freedom anywhere is a loss of freedom everywhere.

Moreover, remember that Italy is a country on my doorstep. It is a founding and powerful member of the Europan Union. And the proposal, as I said, is being put forward by the previous EU Commission President.

What guarantees do I – or YOU – have that the same proposals won’t be put forward in our countries next time? What guarantees do we have that the next step won’t be attempting to introduce the same laws in the entire EU?

If you think this sounds ridiculous, remember that it would be easy for an Italian blogger to put her or his blog onto a server in any other EU country to try to circumvent this law from hell. That would easily give the Italian the government the excuse to start pushing for an EU-wide application of it, in order to uphold the Italian legislation. And then the police could soon be knocking on YOUR door because of something you have written on your computer.

If you agree with me that this is a terrifying perspective, straight from a book by George Orwell less than two decades after the fall of totalitarian regimes in Europe, then protest now.

While it is still legal. 

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?

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.

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.

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.

Fa(r)cebook

OK, OK, I confess. I have fallen for the trend and have now set up shop on Facebook, thus ading to the growing number of employees who are tempted to administer their private Facebook accounts during work hours. A practice which has already prompted several companies to block internet access to the site.

Interestingly enough, I just discovered that one of those is the EU. I mean, I can’t vouch for the accessibility among staff, but here in the Commission’s press room, you cannot reach Facebook even when using your own computer.

Either there has been so much private surfing among staff that the Commission had to do something about it and extended the ban to the Press network by mistake, or I ought to be touched by the EU’s concern for the time efficiency of the media companies we journalists work for.

So, we’ll just have to get to do some real work, then. In an hour, Commissioner Verheugen is to hold a joint press conference about security, but since we are kept busy working, I expect one or two to have thought out some entertaining questions about Günter Verheugen’s active love life instead (see previous post).

Ho hum, this may be very entertaining.

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.

Why Can’t They Sleep Like Normal People?

Over the next few days, you’ll probably hear about your usual politicians’ heroic efforts to fight for your country’s interests late through the night at the upcoming EU summit, which starts Thursday, and where 27 heads of state and government are to fight over a new EU Constitution sorry, treaty no not really, er, additional treaty, or what was it we were going to call it so as not to offend anyone?

Anyway. It’s all fine and dandy that they work hard. What I can’t understand is why they have to go on and on into the night.

It probably looks very heroic and macho to say that “we fought into the wee hours, and we beat the others at about half past four because we were the only ones able to stay awake” et cetera ad nauseam. But then you should know that they don’t even start the meeting until 17.00 (5pm).

Serious. It’s always like that. They drop in around 5pm in the biggest flood of motorcades you’ve seen (tip: if you’re planning a traffic offense in Belgium, try Thursday-Friday, because I can guarantee you that there isn’t a motorcycle policeman anywhere else in the whole country). An hour later, it’s time for the famous “family photo”, where they all line up for a pic – and which is a common source of bickering over who gets to stand where, thus able to be percieved as more important, and who gets to join in last, thus able to be percieved as more important.

(The image shown here is the “family photo” from the last summit, in March, happily nicked from the German Presidency’s web site. If you are able to count to more than 27 people on this picture, you’re right, since a wide selection of foreign ministers and other similar types of people usually join them. I can’t decide if Angela Merkel is either trying to conduct everyone into place, pushing back Jan-Peter Balkenende for getting too intimate, waving farewell to Jacques Chirac as this was his last summit, or if she’s simply praying for Mr Chirac. Romano Prodi, who used to head the EU Commission but now tries to steer Italy, poor chap, seems like he’s made enough friends during his EU years to share a few jokes. Guy Verhofstadt is obviously pondering whether or not he remembered to tie his shoes, Tony Blair has his eyes fixed on the exit already, and Fredrik Reinfeldt looks like he’s thinking “can we please just get on with it so I can go to the bathroom?”)

Anyway. Only then do they get down to some serious business, and of course that takes forever and a day. The day after, they’re actually supposed to be finished around late lunchtime.

Now, you have to remember that most of the hard work is usually carried out by their ambassadors and their delegations in advance. But still – a time schedule like this is astonishing. Why can’t they get to work at nine o’clock in the morning like ordinary people do? Would that look too bland? Like you’d notice, given the blandness of the rest of the EU?

The latest gossip here in Brussels is that they’ll have to extend the summit into the weekend as well, because they probably won’t be able to agree. Well, fellas, maybe you could have avoided that if you’d got started a little earlier.

Debriefing

Speaking of strange e-mails from the EU, today I got one titled “VIP CORNER: MANDELSON DEBRIEF ON MEETING WITH CHINESE MINISTER MR BO XILAI AT 15H45”.

No, I don’t know why they have to write everything in capital letters either. (Maybe they have taken the NIGERIA LETTER CORRESPONDENCE CLASS IN ADVANCED COMMUNICATION.) But that wasn’t the strange thing, but the fact that Commissioner Mandelson apparently needed debriefing after meeting the Chinese minister. What, did they expect the meeting to be that traumatic?

Upon opening the letter, it now emerged that it wasn’t Commissioner Mandelson who needed debriefing – now, it was suddenly us journalists who needed debriefing from this, seemingly, very distressing event, Commissioner Mandelson being the counsellor.

I’m not sure why they are so afraid of the Chinese Minister. But maybe they all got scared when he said his name:

“Boo”.

Green, Green Glass Of Home

Walking through the quarters around the EU institutions quickly makes you spot which buildings are part of the EU frenzy or fringe, and which are not: Just look at the windows.

For some reason, bullet-proof glass usually tends to be as green as the deep blue sea, which as we all know is green rather than blue. (Now there’s an odd sentence if I ever saw one, but I’m tired and I’m writing this on the bus to stop myself from falling asleep. That doesn’t mean that I’m actually writing on the bus, like scribbling graffitti on the seats and the walls, but on the computer, sitting on the bus. No, I’m not writing on the computer, and the computer isn’t sitting… bah. That’s beside the point. Let’s assume you get the general idea.)

Anyway.

You can walk around this area for a while and suddenly notice that all windows on a particular building has this sickly green tint to them – aha, there’s another EU institution. Is it one of the Commission’s 61 buildings? Or one of the countless embassies, or permanent representations?

The German Permanent Representation to the EU has actually managed to make quite a nice architectural feat out of it, having a clean, cream-coloured bastion that contrasts fine with the green sheets of glass. One or two blocks away, however, you find a ghastly grey blob of concrete, also with green glass. which makes the whole thing look as misfit as the colour scheme of a 1975 domestic kitchen.

Oh sure, there’s the stars-on-blue, it’s a Commission building alright.

It all occurred to me as I decided to take a stroll along the route of my bus while waiting for it after a hard day’s work today, and of course getting lost on the way and ending up having walked in a huge semicircle from the Berlaymonster on Rue de la Loi to, ehrm, Rue de la Loi just down the road. (I told you I have no sense of direction.) However, the sun was shining, the weather was nice, and I decided to continue.

Turning left onto the inner ring road gets you another experience of the same kind. First comes the Russian Embassy, which doesn’t seem to have been able to afford any bullet-proof windows at all. It looks remarkably plain and would have been indistinguishable from the adjacent residential apartment blocks had it not been for the big Russian flag and some security, although, no visible human beings on guard. Maybe they’re all in Moscow putting critically-minded journalists in prison. Who knows.

The US Embassy, though, which is just a few doors down the road (boy, would I have loved to sniff around those quarters during the Cold War) is as guarded as Fort Knox. There’s a permanent police posting outside – Belgian police, that is – and you’d better not look too dodgy walking past there.

I look dodgy. They just about stopped and questioned me.

(Incidentally, the US Embassy and Consulate are divided by a side street called Rue Zinner. Not Sinner, that is. I’m sure they’ve all heard that joke before, but I couldn’t resist it.)

But then comes another fortress, which is covered in more green bullet-proof glass than any other building, making you wonder which country has its embassy or representation here. Iran? Israel? North Korea?

No – it turns out to be the seat of the local government for the City of Brussels. Which, for some reason, feels threatened enough to clad itself in more armour than a medieval knight, and certainly more than the Embassies of Russia and the United States put together. But maybe the Brussels gov’t is an emerging superpower, who knows.

They even have far more protection than the Belgian Ministry of Defence, which is just around the corner, and which doesn’t even seem to have any live human being on guard, let alone a security perimeter. But then again, the Belgian arned forces, luckily enough, don’t need to be too busy nowadays.

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.

The Teletubbies Cometh

Among yesterday’s most amusing moments in my microcosmos was when a Polish journalist asked the EU Commission’s press spokesmen at the daily press conference what comment the Commission had on Poland’s decision to investigate whether Teletubbies are propagating homosexuality.

“Does the Commission believe that the Teletubbies are of a bad influence on young children?”, the Polish journalist asked, audibly with her tounge firmly placed in her cheek.

“The Commission believes in the freedom of the media”, was the short answer, accompanied by roaring laughter from the press gallery.

Because, yes, this idea, which was first suggested by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has been revived in Poland, where child ombudsman Ewa Sowinska was to investigate Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation. The collected evidence for these allegations are:

1) Tinky Winky is purple.

2) Tinky Winky carries a handbag.

3) Tinky Winky’s head antenna is vaguely shaped like a triangle.

That’s it.

It may be laughable, especially when you start asking yourself in which ways any gender is associated with the Tubbies – for all I know, they could all be girls – or whether they are capable of having relationships with each other of such a nature that would make homosexuality, according to its biological definition, possible. But Ms. Sowinska took the whole thing very seriously and was to consult psychologists and their likes in order to reach at a verdict.

Today I heard that the whole investigation has been dropped. Congratulations, Polish taxpayers.

That leaves us Christians as the only ones still associated with this barmy statement. I do not know even where to begin being angry with all this.

Not only because of the very idea of having my faith connected with what is best named paranoid conspiracy theories, and not only because it attempts to curb free speech – even if this had turned out to be a gay lobby agenda, the rights for gays to promote their ideas is still my right to promote mine – but also because there is so much more worse garbage out there which is openly poisoning children’s minds, and where it is evident every day that the children copy what they see – in terms of violence and aggressive behaviour.

In fact, I have even had to remove a channel from or TV because our kids spent too much time watching cartoons that were clearly intended for an older audience, as they began learning violent behaviour from it. It took me about 45 seconds to exercise my right to choose in such a way, without having to call for government assistance. And another few minutes to explain to them why it is bad to hit people. Problem solved.

And therein lies probably the most ridiculous thing about all this. If you are uncomfortable with a flannel doll wearing pink, carrying a handbag, and having a triangle on its head, then, for crying out loud, switch to another channel or remove it from your dial. No-one is holding a gun to your head and forcing your kids to watch it.

Euromyths, Part 2 (Long Overdue)

Yes, I did promise a few more juicy myths about the European Union quite some time ago, but hey, I’ve been working. 🙂 Anyway, here’s an old favourite:

Myth: The EU headquarters hosts a multi-storey super-computer, called “The Beast”, which tracks the movements of all people on the face of the Earth. This is a predecessor of the forthcoming Antichrist rule of the world.

This is a myth that has only started to fade, probably to the improvements of technology, which has by now made most people realise that there is no longer any need for any multi-storey computers; the computer you use to read this is probably more powerful. Nevertheless, it is still put forward as truth, as I noticed when doing some quick research for this blog entry, and was pretty widespread for many years among many of my fellow Christians who believe that the EU in some way will be either the personification itself or a vehicle for the anti-Christian rule of the last days foretold in the Book of Revelation.

I shall deal more in detail with the idea that the EU has such a function in a forthcoming Euromyths blog entry, because it deserves some attention in itself. However, let’s get past this computer stuff first.

This is actually a myth whose origins, unusually enough, can be traced.

It all started with a novel, Behold A Pale Horse by Joe Musser, published in 1970; a fictionalised account of the last days as foretold in the Bible, in the same genre as would later be popularised by the Left Behind series. As the account goes, there was a mention of such a computer in that book, which was later put to graphic depiction when the book was made into a film, The Rapture. The film was marketed with some mock newspaper-like publications running “the story” about the super-computer.

Apparently, the disclaimer on these fake papers was either too obscure or not prominent enough, and the story was picked up as fact and passed on. Joe Musser himself is said to have been shocked that his fiction was being reported as fact, and has tried to refute it, but to no avail.

It is easy to see why this fiction was so readily believed by so many. Remember, in those days and for many more years to come, computers were very unknown and very scary. They were usually seen as anonymous threat, often possessing some kind of human-like attributes. When I grew up in the 1980s, for instance, there was a very real and vivid public debate about how the computerisation of society would increasingly steal people’s jobs, if not making humans obsolete altogether in one area after another. The whole Terminator film series builds on this very premise, and “The Computer” was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1982, further cementing its status as bearing human qualifications.

For generations, Christians have read the last Book of the Bible with varying degrees of fear and awe, anxiously trying to identify the various characters there in their own time. Come the early 1970s, suddenly things would have fallen into place: ‘Of course… the Beast won’t be a real human… it’s a computer.’

Add to that the general ignorance of what computers were in those days, as well as the limited possibilities to check urban legends during the pre-Information Age, and you have fertile ground for computer lore.

One might think that the idea would have fallen on its own unreasonability, to anyone who would stop and think. In those days, the then Common Market that would later evolve into the EU only had six member states, becoming nine in 1973. Violently gigantic chunks of the globe were outside of the Common Market’s reach; not only the Americas or Africa, but the entire Communist world, which certainly would never have fed the Western world any details of its inhabitants!

To make things even more complicated, not even the member states themselves had much track of their citizens; Britain, for instance, one of the new members in 1973, lacks a central population register to this day. To imagine that there would be any interest, capacity, or even resources within the Common Market of a few Western European nations to go out and e.g. identify inhabitants of remote tribal villages in Borneo’s jungles or Australia’s outback is so outrageous that it should have made even the most hardened conspiracy theorist stop and think.

Satellites were rare and certainly not commercially available, wireless communication clumsy, and digital technology in its infancy – the sheer logistic and technological problems of such a scheme would have been impossible to overcome. And then there is the question of who on Earth would have been prepared to pay for such a venture, bearing in mind how picky member states havd usually been about not paying one penny more than necessary to the Common Market/EEC/EC/EU and getting as much as possible back.

As readers of this blog know, the most commonly named location for this machine – the famous Berlaymonster – was gutted between 1991 and 2004. There are no records of any such technology being either found or transported from that site, nor has anyone who would have worked at the site come forward with any such revelation. And mind you, they have come forward in other contexts, most notably to complain about the hazards they were exposed to when tearing out all the asbestos in there.

And, once again, needless to say, computer technology of the 1970s won’t exactly let you play your favourite PlayStation games.

It is true that the EU has traditionally been quite advanced in terms of databases – for Community legislation and the like; in the same way as we now take for granted that most official documents produced by any government are available over the Internet.

If ever I come across any suspicious-looking computer equipment at the EU, I promise you’ll be the first to know. Until then, you can safely assume that this is a myth.

(Footnote: To avoid all misunderstanding, maybe I should add that I have not taken any of the above pictures at any computer centrals in any EU buildings. In fact, I have not taken them myself at all, but happily gleaned them from Wikimedia Commons’ Historical Computers category. They depict, from top to bottom, the SAGE AN/FSQ-7 at the American air defence NORAD; Harvard Mark I; an R2-D2-looking tin can from the now defunct Datasaab – believe it or not, called Datasaab D2!; and the ENIAC.)

Say Hi To Bono From Me

Unbelievable!

Only one day after I put a video clip with Bono on this site, I get to hear that he’s in town to meet EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso – and there’ll be a press conference later this evening.

I was hovering around in the EU Commission’s press centre trying to think of some excuse to attend that press conference – that would have required an intelligent connection between what I cover (the food industry) and what these gentlemen would be discussing (certainly not the food industry) – when the next thing happened: my computer’s battery ran flat.

Nothing unusual, not at all. But when I was to plug it in and recharge it… I found that I’d for ONCE forgotten the cable at home.

So there wasn’t much else to do than pack up and go home.

Yesterday, I found out on arrival at the EU quarters that I had forgotten my pen and note pad. Easypeasy, thought I, sailing down to the news agent around the corner from the Council… only to find that I had forgotten my credit card as well. I had just enough cash on me to buy a pen, but had to leave the note pad behind (I never take a lot of cash if I can avoid it).

This is worrying.

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.

Brainstorming Storm

…as I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted, yesterday offered some of the usual, amusing stonewalling amusement that only the European Union can muster. This time, the attempt was to rein in the monumentally mishandled “mini-summit” that the Commission’s chairman José Manuel Barroso called the day before.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Mr Barroso was to invite a few select heads of government to his native Portugal on 12-13 May, to look into the future and discuss a few issues of one kind or another. (You might suspect this to be a euphemism for “looking into a glass with an ice cube-cooled beverage by the poolside in sunny Portugal”, but that is of course unsubstantiated slander.)

However, a number of other heads of government were not invited, which immediately triggered questions such as “What criteria did you have when selecting the lucky charter passengers sorry, conference attendees”, or “Is this another step towards a ‘two-speed EU'”, with some members being, eh, more members than others, which the union has tried to avoid in recent years.

Amusingly enough, the outcry thus produced made Mr Barroso swiftly change his plans and strike a few people off the guest list. All of a sudden, only a few people with slightly more defined importance for forward-looking issues were now on the shortlist, such as the heads of government for the countries next in turn to take the rotating chairmanship. You could almost hear the groaning of the other ones grumpily unpacking their sunscreen tubes and swim shorts.

Of course, Mr Barroso’s spokesman, our favourite gatekeeper Johannes Laitenberger, was pressed about all this by journalists who wondered whether or not they should bother booking a flight ticket or so. (They always send him forward when they know something controversial’s coming up.) Mr Laitenberger tried his best to convince us all at the daily press briefing that this was not a “mini-summit”, merely “brainstorming”.

“What”, one reporter eventually asked, ” do you say to those heads of government, like for instance the Belgian Prime Minister, whose brains were not considered important enough to storm”?

“Mr Barroso holds ongoing talks with all kinds of people”, Mr Laitenberger responded, adding:

“I can assure you that all brains will be stormed”.

All brains? Yeaouwch. Remember this, next time you have a sudden headache: it might be the EU storming your brain. Watch out for little men in black. Look carefully under your bed before going to sleep,

Ulysses The Deskjockey

Perhaps it’s just as good that a couch potato like me, whose main movements at work are across wall-to-wall carpets within the EU’s comfortably padded cells for press centres, gets his shoes dirty with some foray into the real world every now and then.

As I said, the trains were on strike and I had told Belgian TV that I’d go home. However, I then decided to make an attempt to get to Luxemburg after all.

By one of these neat little coincidences in life that you might thank God for, I had bumped into my friend Philip at the strike-ridden Gare du Midi station. He had been given a plane ticket so he could go see his girlfriend in California, but couldn’t get to the airport. I had told him to try to get to the North station instead, where it might be easier to get an airport train or bus.

So, having weighed my options, I decided to try that myself; maybe I could get somewhere from there instead.

Arriving at Gare du Nord, I was met with the same sight as at Gare du Midi: one single information booth, a mile-long queue of stranded travellers, and signs saying sorry, no international trains because of the strike. (There were a number of domestic trains there, though, so I do hope Philip made it to his flight. “Fly away, Phil… be free”, if you’ve seen “Cars”.)

Anyway. I had talked with my colleague Patrik about perhaps riding with him, but eventually decided not to because he was planning to stay overnight in Luxemburg and I wasn’t. But now, I had, ehrm, thoroughly changed my mind. I called  him on my cell phone.

“I was waiting for you to call”, were the first words I heard.

I was more than welcome to hitch a ride. If I could just make it to their office.

It only so happened that the easiest way to get there turned out to be on a brand new tram line, making its first trips today – I must have been on the third or fourth departure of Line 25 ever. It was so new that it didn’t even seem to have learned to find its way, or so it seemed, as we were soon stuck in the perpetual vehicle gridlock that is known as Brussels traffic. Good thing that I had, for once, started early.

Arriving at the stop as instructed, I started my search for the offices of the Swedish Television. I thought I had a clue. I didn’t.

Patrik called, telling me not to hurry because he was late, too, as his bus had got stuck in the traffic. Surprise, surprise (Not).

I got some directions. Now, you must understand that the address spelled out to me was in French, and that I nearly failed French in high school. And it was spoken into one mobile phone and received by me on another mobile phone. To the backdrop of the morning traffic.

Another explanation for what was about to happen is that I am officially completely liberated from any sense of direction whatsoever.

So, having checked the two-by-four-metre billboard map in front of me, I set off. House number 95. Hm, the numbers start at 12 or something. OK, I’ll walk. And walk. And walk. Scorching sun. Sweaty shirt. Shoe size steadily increasing.

Some 10-20 minutes later – at last, number 95. Wait a minute. No sign of Swedish Television here.

I’m not calling again. After all, I’m a man, and there’s this thing about asking for directions. Wait, I have an idea. I’ll call directory inquiries and ask. Oh no, I’ve used up the phone card, another little walk to the cash dispenser.

Since Belgium is divided sideways, longways, thisways, thatways and some ways you wouldn’t imagine, there are three different numbers to call for directory inquiries, depending on whether you speak French, Flemish, or English. I called the one number I could think of, and a voice answered in German.

I hadn’t finished asking when the voice interrupted me. “No no, you must dial 1405 for inquiries in English”, she said. In perfect English.

I dialled 1405, but an automatic voice in my phone told me “You are not allowed to dial this number”. I’m not joking. I tried it twice.

OK, maybe it was that other street I should have walked. Another little promenade in the heat and sun, arriving almost full circle back to where I begun. At 95, there was still no sight of any TV newsroom, only the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea. I pondered for a moment whether I should ring the bell and ask for political asylum. Luckily, Patrik called again before I fell for the temptation.

“Where are you?”

I tried to explain to him that I had been at the advised address, but that there was no sight of his company. Oh yes, they were supposed to be there alright. Oh no, I have been right outside and gone somewhere else! OK, I’ll start all over again.

Just check the billboard map once again.

Oh no.

I had turned my perception of the whole thing upside down. I had walked in exactly the opposite direction.

The TV office was at number 95, alright, with at least two or three coloured signs brightly announcing its presence there. I thus understood that Patrik must have thought that I had completely gone either insane or blind, when I’d made some unwisecrack on the phone about “microscopic letters”.

We did eventually get to Luxemburg. I’m not sure how, because I fell asleep in the car.

Fast-forward to the same day’s evening. There was supposed to be a decision by the EU ministers on how to save the world’s eels, and we journalists waited, and waited, and waited. I called home. My wife was alone with two tired kids. The train strike was over, but when I checked the timetable, I realised I needed to get on the 20:24 train or get stuck in Arlon until early next day. I told her. She was not happy. To say the least.

Finally, two disillusioned Germans materialised to inform us that there wouldn’t be a decision after all. Case closed. Finito. Too bad.

That was about 19:55.

Right! Grab a bus and scoot down the hill from the European quarters to Luxemburg’s train station, conveniently located at the exact opposite side of town. Oh wait a minute, for some reason you have to actually check out of the conference centre where the meeting was held. And of course, it was all taken care of by a new apprentice, who had his supervisor talking him through the whole thing, step by step.

Come ON, before one of us dies.

Dash out to the bus stop. Next bus is 20:05. No, don’t start walking, Jonathan, you don’t know where to go. The bus should arrive at the station… well, some time around a minute after the train was to leave.

The bus was late.

Easy now. At least it’s a nice sightseeing.

SMS on the cell phone, about two minutes before arrival. “Negotiations about the eels have started”. Wait! Didn’t they just say that it had all broken down? Do I have to take the next bus back again?

By then, I decided I had had enough of eels for a decade or twenty-two. Two nanoseconds before arrival, I managed to send a message asking what was going on. The bus arrived at the station at 20:24. I scampered across the street to the serenade of angry car horns. I zoomed through the station. Yess! The train is late! Wait! There’s another one too! I made it!

I must have looked like a convict on the run from an asylum, as I – sweaty, adrenaline spurting out of my ears, hair in all directions, panting – roared to the conductor “C’est pour Bruxelles??”, pointing at the train bearing big large signs saying “Bruxelles-Midi” all over.

“Normalement, oui”, he responded, sanguinely.

Another SMS: Sorry, you’re right, the eel thing had collapsed.

The train arrived in Brussels some time before midnight. I pondered on how on Earth to get from central Brussels to my home here in the village outside town, now that the last bus had gone, and eventually decided to take a chance there’d be a metro taking me to the station from which it’s only a 45 minute walk to my home.

It did take 45 minutes alright, during which I wrote this whole story in my head. I arrived home an hour into the 17th of April, my 38th birthday.

Happy birthday to me.

I will never eat an eel in my life.

It’s Official: Commissioner Reding Likes Champagne

Today, I can disclose a breaking news item: EU Commissioner Viviane Reding likes champagne.

This was announced by her spokesman Martin Selmayr today, as it became virtually clear that the extra charge you pay for calling and receiving calls on your mobile phone when travelling between European countries will be drastically slashed, in time for the summer holiday season. The EU Parliament’s Industry Committee today voted in favour of cutting these roaming charges by about 70 per cent, and if all the rest goes according to plan, the new rules will come into force in July.

“I just spoke with Commissioner Reding, who is in China, and informed her about the vote, and I can tell you that she opened a bottle of champagne after hearing about the vote”, Mr Selmayr told the amused journalists.

After a few general, more or less critical questions about the matter itself, someone in the press gallery asked:

“Um, an important distinction. Did the commissioner actually open a bottle of champagne?”

“Again, I’m surprised about your skepticism”, Mr Selmayr smurked. “If you knew Commissioner Reding, you would know that she would never miss such an opportunity”.

You can watch the whole thing by clicking here; choose “Thursday 12/04/2007”, scroll down the page and click on “12:46:01”. The all-important question about Ms Reding’s drinking habits comes at  12:53:26.

Of course, given the fierce fight the EU has put up to ensure that nothing produced outside of the Champagne region in France can be called “champagne”, one must assume that Ms Reding was able to get a genuine bottle on location, or had brought her own supply (however she managed to get that past security). Arrggh, I should have asked some kind of spanner-in-the-works question about that. Sorry, I didn’t think of that until now.