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.

Fishy

I just read that the EU is sending another EUR 5 million to Mauritania and several other countries in West Africa, to help against starvation. There is an ongoing shortage of food in the area, which is why the EU has already spent EUR 25 million on aid there.

However, the government of Mauritaina, as you may remember, recently sold its fishing rights in its waters – to the EU.

That means that the EU is first sending fishing boats – from the Baltic, of all places – to trawl up all the Mauritanian fish, and then sends financial aid to the same area because the Mauritanians – surprise, surprise – have nothing to eat.

Am I the only one seeing somethng fishy with this picture?

Belgian Crisis: Into The Fridge

Flemish and French-speaking Belgians alike are celebrating a half victory and bemoaning a half defeat today, as the never-ending issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency (BHV) has strewn salt into the country’s wounds once again.

The Flemings are happy to have been able to schedule the issue for a parliamentary vote, something that has been four decades in the making. The French-speakers, on the other hand, have blocked the issue from moving forward for 120 days, by having the French-speaking community’s bodo Cocof invoking the “emergency brake” clause that enables either side of the divided country to put controversial decisions “in the fridge”, as Flemish media describes it, for a cooling-off period of four months, should one side feel trampled by the other.

Apparently, this is only the second time that this Belgian peculiarity has evenr been used – the first was only some months ago, over the same issue by the way.

The date July 15 has previously been mentioned as a deadline to resolve the issue, but with divisions as deep as ever before, few believe that this will be accomplished.

As a foreigner, I frankly can’t understand why it is so aggressively difficult to reach an agreement and instead take on more burning issues, such as improving welfare, housing, roads, reforming taxes, improving public sector efficiency, fighting against nepotism and corruption, and last but not least: shoving the entire bureaucracy surrounding starting a company into the waste-paper basket, and replacing it with a quick and easy way to enable entrepreneurs and people with more good ideas than pen-pushing skills to start companies and thus help to do something about unemployment.

But that’s just me.

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.

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.

I Am The Easter Bunny

I thought our Christmas ordeal was a challenging experience in cross-cultural communication, trying to explain to our little children the four incarnations of Santa Claus. Little did I know that I would have to become the Easter Bunny at 7 am on Easter Sunday.

Let’s recap. Our children are of Anglo-Swedish origin, and we live in Belgium. Three cultures to merge already, the latter of which we are still largely ignorant of in spite of a total of six years in this country. Our children, however, spending most of their awake hours in a Flemish school, are not.

I should have remembered last year, when we were hunting little Easter eggs all around our back yard. Another mnemonic came a few days ago in the shape of our dear little old lady neighbour downstairs, a Flemish woman with no children of her own and thus our kids’ surrogate Granny. She called me to her and snuck a large bag of little Easter eggs and candy of the same kind, with the obvious intent of helping us to repeat the act this year.

The thing is, in this part of the world, little children awake on Easter morning (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which day it’s supposed to be) to find their gardens full of hidden chocolate eggs that have to be found. In France, these eggs are said to be spread all over the world from the Vatican’s church bells; in Belgium, for some reason I have yet to unveil, they are all laid by the Easter Bunny.

Problematically enough, however, he is not the only one who does so. Any visit to any commercial outlet of any kind this time of the year reveals that Easter Bunnies must have reproduced like, well, rabbits, because you are met with row after row, aisle after aisle, of one set of Easter eggs and candy more sugar-stuffed and unhealthy than another.

Consequently, we thought ourselves to be good parents to but the kids one large, candy-stuffed Easter egg each on Good Friday, to prevent any possible pining. But when they came home from school, they had already had a visit from the candy-dropping Bunny in their classrooms, and were thus already experiencing blood sugar levels set to saturated and rising. So we thought it good to ration the candy intake, and leave the garden chocolate hunt for Easter Day in the morning. Eager inquiries from the Four-year-old and the Six-year-old, anticipating the hunt, were met with our purportedly initiated explanations that “it’s too early yet, wait for Easter Sunday”.

Talk about making a rod for your own back.

The day before – nay, the night before – I had reason to attend to a lot of important business that kept me up late, late, late into the wee hours. Or early. Going to bed, I calculated when I would have to get up again in order to get us ready for going to Church, and decided that I could at least sleep until 8.30. Wow, almost five hours’ sleep.

How wrong I was. Ten to seven, our two little tots came bouncing into our bed – which only so happens to be the best point for getting a view of our garden – excitedly wanting to see how full of sweets the garden was. You should have seen the look on their faces when all they saw was frozen grass. Disappointment and grief doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Drowsily trying to return to the land of the living, two thoughts fought for attention from the four of my brain cells that had switched on so far

1)      Are these Belgian kiddies my children?

2)      How in the name of Pete do I get away with this?

Luckily enough, necessity is the mother of invention. I sent the kids back to bed with some half-baked explanation that it was so early that the Bunny hadn’t even made it there yet, trying to order them to sleep a little more. That is usually impossible. When the sun is shining at full floodlight strength and they are expecting one of the year’s major events, it’s as easy as drilling a mine shaft with a boiled carrot.

I then remembered that thankfully, there is a corner of our garden that you can’t see from anywhere in the house, as it is concealed behind a large shed.

So I put on a suitably troubled face (which was the one thing this morning that took the least effort), went to my grim-faced little dear ones laying in their beds and told them that I was going outside to take a closer look, just in case.

The thermometer said –0.4 C.

Well, then at least I could wear a winter jacket large enough to conceal the sack of candy from the Secret Hiding Place. Out I went, after first ripping open the little bags that these eggs come in, so as to be able to act quickly once out there.

I felt like someone out of a Biblical parable as I stood there in the garden, spreading little candy eggs like a sowerman. There must be a sermon illustration in all this. Hope the neighbours weren’t watching, but then again, they probably would have nodded in sympathy.

Next, stage two of the Deception: I took a deep breath, rushed inside, and dashed into my kids’ bedroom feigning excitement.

“I found them! I found them! They were in the corner! Come and have a look!”

Grumpily and drowsily, the kids reluctantly arose to come and see. The Six-year-old looked in some disbelief, wondering what those empty bags accidentally sticking out from Daddy’s pocket were all about. My and my wife’s acting skills were stretched to their limits as we boiled up yet another lie about them being some old trash that I was about to throw away.

I eventually managed to pour my children into suitably warm clothes, and get them outside, where they would only be able to see the candy from right behind the shed. You guessed it: the day was saved.

However, as I stood there repeating that the Easter Bunny must have been in a great hurry, why he left all the eggs in one corner of the garden – all in the name of making the illusion complete – I did wonder how I was going to reconcile the fact that I had begun this year’s largest Christian feast day by trying to systematically violate the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth, if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran).

Better get to Church, I suppose. My alarm clock just went off 15 minutes ago.

 

 

I’ve Got A Flat

In British English, the above headline means “I have an apartment”. In American English, it means “I have a flat tire”. Well, you’re right on both.

I don’t know what it is. But are car tyres generally of worse quality today, or have we completely gone mad when it comes to chucking debris all around us? For the first 15 years or so of holding a driver’s license, I only had a flat tyre three times. Two were on ancient tyres that surprised me by holding out for as long as they did. And oh yes, there was one other that never blew, but where the cord had split and would have blown up on me any moment. But apart from that, nothing.

Since moving to Belgium in 2004, I have now had four flat tyres. But my boss, who lives in the West of Sweden, seems to have had the same experiences lately, with tyres going like balloons on a kiddies’ birthday party.

In at least two of my cases, nails have been involved. (And no, they did NOT come from my garage floor.) On one of the latest, we discovered at least three or four nails when the tyre was removed from the rim. So what’s going on here?

Either we have a fierce and foul competitor, who is conspiring against us at Foodwire and blowing our tyres at night. Or the tyre industry has decided that we all change tyres too seldom, and have collectively impaired their quality accordingly. (Any anti-cartel authority out there reading this?)

Or we have just all become careless when it comes to littering.

Oh bother.

7-Eleven

My boss just wrote on his blog that a 7-Eleven is coming to the small Swedish town where he lives.

I want a 7-Eleven here in Brussels, too. But there isn’t one in the whole country.

As I’ve probably mentioned, shop hours are quite surprising in what aspires to be the capital of Europe. Everything is closed on Sundays, holidays, and long weekends, with only a few very notable exceptions. If you’ve forgotten to do your shopping, you could easily end up in a sort of wildlife survival experience in your apartment.

And don’t even think about dashing into a shop that happens to be open at the very last minute before closing time. A shop closing at, say, 7pm means that its staff reserves the fight to leave at 7pm. At our local supermarket, they post armed guards (no joking) at the doors about fifteen minutes before closing, to make sure that no last-minute shoppers will sneak in and force the staff to work a few moments’ overtime. Arguing with the guards that opening hours mean opening hours is no idea. I’ve tried.

7-Elevens and their like do not exist. There are a few “night shops”, though, which you even might find aftere some countless hours of driving around, which may be alright if all you need is a vat of over-sugared soft drink or cigarettes, but that’s it.

Quite frankly, I fail to understand the logic. Supermarkets are open all day, usually from 9am, when everybody is at work and have no time to go shopping. Being one of the notable exceptions to confirm the rule, I’ve often snuck in at our local supermarket around then after taking the kids to school, to get one or two things for breakfast or so. There are a few pensioners, one or two other people, and that’s it, staff sitting idly at the tills. Whereas when people do have time to go shopping, in the evenings and during the weekends, the shops are closed.

Today Is The Worst Day

Today is officially the worst day of the entire year, according to a mathematical formula developed by Dr Cliff Arnall at the University of Cardiff.

His formula alculating things like the time since Christmas, January debts, weather and failed New Year’s reslutions has pinpointed the date fr the “Blue Monday” every year since 2005, and this year, it’s today. You can read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Monday_(date) or here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/portal/main.jhtml?xml=/portal/2008/01/21/ftdepressing121.xml

I look out over the grey weather, the empty bank account, my ever so hanging potbelly, and wonder of there might be some truth to the good doctor’s formula after all.

Grayscale

This is the worst time of year of them all, in my humble opinion. Everything is grey, grey, grey, grey, buckets of ice water pour from a grey sky, and your body cries out for vitamines, gren leaves, sunlight and nourishment that simply isn’t there.

I’m not going to fall for the trap to say that that’s only in Belgium: it’s pretty much the same in the entire Northern temperate zone this time of year. Further north, it’s even worse: there you have the darkness as well as a complicating factor. Well, it does mean that you don’t have to see the misery of it all, but it drains you even further.

And soon our Christmas decorations will go down as well. Help… is there any remedy?

Cough, Cough

The reason for my recent silence here is simple: Fourth flu in two months.

Maybe I should start living healthier.

Another One Bites The Dust

I’ve struggled all week to steer clear of the stomach flu since my six-year-old came down with it a few days ago. Washed my hands in hospital alcohol, kept clean, tried to eat moderately… but to no avail. Today, I’m anchored up with a volcano trapped in my belly.

Well, at least it happened before Christmas, so there’s still a chance that we’ll all be healthy on the big days. But I need to finish my X-mas shopping too… help.

Like I’ve said before: Howard Hughes was right.

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.

To Reset Day, Press Which Button

It’s not even 10 am this Monday morning and it seems that everything has gone wrong already.

I’m not going to bore you with the details. Let’s just say that I would like to reiterate my request for a Reset button to be used on such mornings, to have them rebooted.

Where do you file such a request? Is the EU capable of introducing one?

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.

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.

Uncomfortably Numb

Yesterday, I changed a headlight bulb on my car. It took me one hour and included a visit to the car brand’s local garage.

Don’t get me wrong; I pride myself of having some technical skill, especially in the field of cables and connectors, being an ex-radio reporter and all. I have changed more lightbulbs than I can remember on various cars, and have indeed done far more complicated maintenance jobs than that. But it seems that my capacity for do-it-yourself maintenance is coming to an abrupt end as cars are so rapidly becoming so advanced that even simple tasks become a challenge.

Indeed, there are already cars on the market where you literally cannot change a headlight bulb yourself; only the garage has the necessary tools and skills. On my particular car, it is technically possible, but you almost have to detach the battery first, which means that you have to re-program the radio afterwards, and who knows what else. And then its only a 2001. On the newest model of the same car, I was told at the garage which helped me with the embarrassingly simple task, you must lift the battery out first.

It reminds me of a car I had once, where, in order to replace the fan belt, you were required to first lift the whole engine out. No kidding.

On the horizon are cars where the whole engine compartment is sealed, and where you can only reach nozzles for topping up various fluids. But while we let ourselves be lulled into this state of comfortable numbness of having Mr Expert et consortes taking care of all the routine tasks for us, the obvious question arises: What if you need to fix something by the roadside, late at night, in the dark and perhaps cold, while your exhausted and hungry kids are crying inside because we never seem to get to where we’re going? And Mr Expert is closed for the day, the weekend, the week, the holidays, or the season? Or miles and miles away?

I would be less worried if this development was accompanied by a corresponding increase in quality, so that you didn’t have to fix things… but let’s just say that there is somewhat of a discrepancy between the two and leave it at that.

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.

It’s A Wonderful World When You’re Rolling In Dollars… NOW!

My boss just wired me some money. Nothing strange about that. It’s part of his job. And as usual, the transfer will take three days.

Now, that’s more strange, however.

It’s the same with most money transfers these days, which are now almost as quick as during the days when you would give the money to a runner on a horse and have him gallop off to the recipient in person. Today, using computers and a supposedly blink-of-an-eye-speed monetary system, transfers between banks in the known Western world commonly takes three days.

Some banks take three days even for transfers within the same bank. None mentioned, none forgotten: they are all sinners one way or another.

Now can anybody explain to me where the money is in the meantime? Held up in some digital roadblock on the Information Superhighway? Having to present its papers at some virtual checkpoint in today’s borderless global Internet world?

More interestingly still, exactly how is this possible? I mean, this is supposed to be the age of modern computer technology, where I can send a message to Australia and back in a split second. In fact, this very blog post may very well have spun a few times around the globe before reaching your computer screen. We read every day how investors press a button and ZOOM! goes a batch of dough equivalent to Belgium’s national debt into some offshore investor’s account (and out from under the feet of some poor company, sending it into bankruptcy, but that’s another story).

So how do the banks actually manage to make a money transfer for us common mortals last three days? Do they use computers at all, or have they upgraded to homing doves? Or smoke signals? Digital smoke signals, that is, having some poor bloke do the miserable smoke signals in binary – “one, zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero, cough, cough, oh, bother, there’s supposed to be a one there, I’ll have to start over again”.

Or is there some gigantic cash vault somewhere, where they pour all the bread in for a few days in order to have some time for a money-rolling orgy, whith bank managers wallowing in dollars like Scrooge McDuck and back-office clerks pouring fistfuls of euros over their heads?

The prosaic answer is of course that they are sitting on the money for a few days, cashing in interest by the minute, while not having to pay any interest to the rightful owners of the money.

You and me, that is.

Lego’s Lost It

Iknow, I know, this has nothing to do with EU policies. But this week means Autumn (Fall) break in large parts of Europe, including here in Belgium. In short, that means that my two sons, four and six years old, are spending the week at home. The weather is as grey as you would have guessed, and consequently, they are already climbing the walls.

It is on those occasions that you have ample opportunity to ponder the quality of toys, which in their case happens to be a Lego car each, brought home from Luxemburg as a consolation by their Daddy for being away for two full days, talking fisheries and other EU Agricultural policies. Ample, I’d say, because of the tears and frustration Lego brings to today’s kids.

When I grew up, Lego was a set of pretty anonymous little plastic bricks with only two defining characteristics:

1) They hurt the living daylights out of our parents when they stepped on them bare-footed on their way to the bathroom at night.

2) You could build ANYTHING with them.

Today’s Lego bricks also have two defining characteristics:

1) They are so small and tiny that they either vanish or get sucked into the hoover by mistake before anyone gets to step on them by night.

2) Every piece is so specialised that you can’t build ANYTHING with them.

Including the one toy you are supposed to build with each kit, that is. The instructions for a tiny fire engine or police car are commonly two pages long, and so complicated that even Daddy would have had problems with it unless he’d spent the last decade assembling IKEA furniture every few months. Four-year-olds rarely have that experience. Consequently, they’re in tears after the first few moments.

Then comes the hard part. Today’s Lego toys are so aggressively poorly constructed that they fall apart by themselves before you can say Ole Kirk Christiansen. To be technical about it, they’re usually so scaled down that each joint is only held together by one single… what do they call those little round bumps? One and none more it is, anyway. Thus defying the laws of nature, there can only be one logical result: the toys come apart. Straight away.

The consequence of this is that today’s children learn about Lego toys falling apart, before they learn about Lego being something fun to build together. It used to be the other way around. Their only point of reference to Lego is that the Lego toys look and perform like some fifth-grade imitation of Playmobil.

And that’s probably the clue. Lego seems to have completely lost faith in its own business model, and decided to try to take ground from rival Playmobil. Problem is, they will never be able to make something designed to look and behave like one thing look and behave like something else. And judging from the heavy losses the Lego Group has been making during the last few years, the consumers have discovered, too, that Lego is basically making an utter fool of itself abandoning such a genial formula it once was in order to become a simple copy of something else it can never live up to.

There’s a lesson in there for all of us: Stay who you are… don’t become a bleak copy of someone else. You are unique; dare to trust being yourself.

I only wish I could explain that to the kiddies, though.

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. 

Playing With The Travelling Band

The travelling band commonly known as the European Union this month has its minsterial meetings in Luxembourg again (yes, indeed at the ghastly Luxembunker pictured to the right), and I will be playing along Monday and Tuesday as a reporter at the Agriculture and Fisheries council. (I wish I were playing with a real travelling band instead, especially when reading about old friends doing exactly that, but that’s another story.)

On Tuesday, the ministers are supposed to discuss fisheries, a common source of discontent not only because the ministers consistently fail to agree on quotas small enough to actually give fish stocks a chance to survive, but also because there has been widespread pirate fishing that compound the problem.

Notably from Poland, where the government has openly said that it does not intend to do one whit about it, because it believes that the fears for fish stocks are exagerrated. In short, they are allowing themselves an unlimited quota on the expense on every other nation around the Baltic. Marine harvest state terrorism is a concept that one is tempted to use.

However, don’t expect the Polish delegation to receive more than a symbolic thrashing about it, because Poland held general elections on Sunday and it seems that there is a huge possibility that there will be a change of guard there. And then, the process has to start all over again, with a new government which can always claim that it shouldn’t have to live up to the previous one’s agreements.

In the meantime, the EU is rattling its sabres (all two and a half of them), insisting that it will take deterrent measures against fishermen who can’t keep their tackle under control. Draconian measures are being considered, including a black list – a piece of paper listing of offending vessels – and a ban on selling catches that have bene landed outside the quota.

I bet the Pirates of the Baltic are quaking with fear.

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?

If I Only Had Some Eau De Cologne

I’m back after the Cologne experience… half doubting that I actually made it.

I was supposed to get up at an hour yesterday morning previously unknown to man, and take the bus. Well, I got up alright, but then my stomach decided to ask me for an encounter of a kind which will be of no interest to you, I hope, that kept me from getting to the bus.

I tried waking my wife up to drive me to the Metro, but to no avail. Few people have the same capacity for comatose sleep in the wee hours, and it as just as good that I was unable to contact her because who knows what ditch she would have landed in on the way back. But luckily, my neighbour was going to work very early that very morning, and I htched a ride with him to a suitable bus stop, only vatching the last possible bus to the Gare du Midi station by throwing myself across the heavy rush-hour traffic of a thoroughfare in complete darkness.

I hurried into the train station and realised that I needed to withdraw some money as well. Racing around the entire station area  revealed the ONE cash dispenser (ATM) in the entire station area at the diametrically oposite side of it to where I was. I did make it, strangely enough, and even had a few minutes left to walk back towards the platform at a normal pace… only to glance up at the informaition board that my train had been CANCELLED.

“This doesn’t begin very well”, I thought.

Complaining at the information desk, of course, was completely pointless. Even an apology was beyond their imagination.

“It’s the Germans who haven’t sent us the train. You’ll have to complain in Germany”, they said, shrugging their sholuders and raising their hands in the gesture, which I have come to detest, which means “I don’d know and I don’t care“.

They did, however, book me and all the other passengers fro that train onto the next one. Two trainfuls of passengers on one train, thus. You imagine the rest.

At least, I did get some work done while waiting, and the next train, which was one and a half hours later, was only delayed another 20 minutes. (“Signal failure”, they call it. I don’t believe one whit of that. I’ve heard “signal failure” being blamed so many times on different trains in different coutries that I believe it’s the standard international rail excuse for anything from the driver being late due to hangover, to the train needing to stop to let the guard go buy a doughnut).

Anyway.  Thus two hours late, I tried to break into the Kölnermesse. Which was easier said than done,because the entire fair has moved a bit (I kid you not) and the whole area is a huge construction site. When I eventually found the entrance, I realised I had entered on the opposite side to where one of the two press centres was. Which was where I needed to start.

“OK”, I thought, “I’ll just look through some of the halls on the way, I have to do that anyway”.

Now, the Kölnermesse is the size of Wisconsin, with about 17 exhibition halls each large enough to accommodate the collected fleet of British Airway’s aircraft. “Some halls” means trekking rather than walking – with my portable newsroom across one shoulder.

Correspondingly flat-footed, I eventually reached the press centre. It was closed. The other one was at the diametrically opposite side to the north of the area.

Same kind of expedition once again, this time across and through different halls, getting lost in about every one of them because they have changed the entire layout logic of the fair. All the time thinking what on Earth I was going to write about all this.

I did eventually reach the other press centre where I could start working, with feet the size of Yorkshire.

That is where I was reached by the news, from my wife, that we had received some unjust fines from the Flemish authorities for services we are not supposed to pay for.

Like I said – it didn’t start very well.

However. I decided to make the best out of the situation, and work myself around the area by focussing on the Swedish exhibitors it was my main task to cover. It worked. There was a lot of good and interestng material evolving from there, and I felt increasingly encouraged by the minute.

Last on yesterday’s programme, as I said, was a Swedish event in a restaurant off the Rhine (or maybe more accurately on it), across the river and well away from the trade fair area. I did reach it on time thanks only to riding a bus across the Hohenzollern bridge, which I so loudly scorned in a previuls blog entry as being the most unnnecessary ride etc etc (I did walk across the bridge on my way to the fair, though), and taking a taxi the last bit. I carefluuy calculated how long I would be able to stay before having to leave to catch the last train home.

However… I never had a good grade in maths.

I left the event in good time, I thought, and asked the staff to help me call a taxi just to be sure. That’s when I discovered that calling a taxi in a city crammed full with people visiting the same trade fair as I had was slightly challenging. To say the least.

They could not reach the switchboard.

I waited a little too long… and then decided to start walking, It was longer than I had expected. It was dark. I was loking for taxis to flag down – but there were none. Oh yes, there’s one. He didn’t see me. It’s dark and I’m wearing black. Oh dear, I’m standing in the middle of the road trying to catch the cab and there’s a car coming straight at me. Better jump out of the way.

The train was about to leave NOW.

I ran with all the heavy bagage that you accumulate at a trade fair, soaked in rivers of sweat, gushing sweat that would have raised the Rhine water level by a few feet. A glance to the left – there’s a taxi leavng a restaurant and it’s for hire! I all but threw myself across its bonnet (hood), ripped the door open, and landed in the passenger seat without looking if anybody else was there. In fact, by then, I wouldn’t have cared; I would have just sat on the lap of anybody who would have happened to be there and simply hijacked the taxi.

“HAUPTBAHNHOF BITTE, SCHNELL, SCHNELL!!!!” I roared, in a tone of voice borrowed from the Captain in the marvellous film “Das Boot” where he is trying to get his submarine to escape heavy bombardment from Allied aircraft, and slammed a fiver in the driver’s hand. It had the desired effect, for he took off through the Cologne night traffic at a speed that somehow made me think of Henri Paul, Dodi al-Fayed and Lady Di. Especially since I, for once, wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, in order to be able to throw myself out of the cab.

Throw myself out I did, indeed, and zoomed into the station,  fellow passengers elbowed to the right and left in my wake. It was departure time. Where’s the train? I can’t see it listed! Quick, is there a train number on the ticket? Where is the ticket? Oh for crying out loud, I can’t find the ticket!

I looked up through wet and misty glasses at the announcement board. Oh, there the train was. With an accompanying notice.
“Train to Brussels delayed a few minutes. We apologize.”

Apologize?!?! I would have kissed their feet.

I have very vague memories of the train ride itself. Only that I landed at home very late at night, to a nice cup of tea and the company of my Mrs.

Am I the star of some candid camera reality show or something?

Who Would You Like To Pay To Not Work?

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean “who would you like to bribe so you don’t have to work”. Rather, who would you like to pay to make them stop working?

That’s an interesting dimension of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (one which is due to be done away with today by the way), which BBC correspondent Mark Mardell happily explores in a great blog post which you can read by clicking here. Since it’s already posible to pay farmers for not cultivating parts of their lands, he argues, why stop there? Why not pay other professionals for not doing their jobs?

For instance, I could think of quite a number of politicians, whom I would be quite happy to pay for them not to do any more work.

Oh wait a minute… I already do.

Oh, bother.

GI Blues

While constantly bemoaning my motor vehicle-style airbag, which popped out from somewhere under my shirt around the time I completed my third decade in this world and has stayed there ever since, I came across an old friend from Elementary school the other day, courtesy of Facebook. As i got a bit curious of what had happened to him since then, I did a quick Internet search as I sometimes do, and lo and behold: He turned out to have been interviewed in a major daily some years ago for having lost 54 (!) kilos, using mainly the GI method.

(He also used to be the biggest Elvis Presley fan I’ve ever known. For those of you who know your King, hence the headline.)

Anyway. For those of you still blissfully unaware of the GI method, it can be summed up with an expression coined by one of its earliest proponents, Dr. Robert Atkins:

“Fat is good, carb is bad.”

That essentially means that you skip all carbohydrate-rich foods – pasta, bread, and anything else that’s tasty – and stick to veg and even meat.

Sigh. I put out a general question on Facebook – “How do I get rid of my potbelly?” – in search of alternative methods. But it only so happened that it was that very school friend (or what’s left of him) who produced the first response to it:

“Don’t, see it as an insurance for harder times. Your skinny body nead some meat on it”.

I am currently celebrating that insight with a large plate of spaghetti, as I write this. WHOLE GRAIN pasta, that is. Eat that.

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.

Base, To Be Avoided

It seriously grieves me to add another company to the sorry list of companies here in Belgium that treat their customers like trash. Who sit on their bottoms doing nothing while their services are down, and who honestly expect their customers to be grateful that they answer the phone at all after 6 pm.

In a nutshell, that’s the sum of today’s haggling with the cell phone company Base, which I made the mistake of signing up with a few years ago. Today at about 11.30 am, I paid them money online to top up my account. As of 9.52 pm, the money has still not reached my account, and the “customer service” has informed me that they won’t do anything about it until tomorrow because their technicians went home at 6 pm.

With the result that I can’t make any calls on my cell phone, and have been unable to do so during the whole day.

Little did it matter that I did both call and e-mail during the day, before their technicians fled. Little did the argument mean to them that a professional phone company will keep working until the problem is actually solved, rather than dodging off and keeping their customers waiting until they can be bothered to show up at work again. Little did it mean to them that they are sittig on my money right now, without giving me the service I pay for, which in my book is equivalent to stealing.

And don’t expect any compensation, mister. Oh, want to complain? Write a letter to our legal department, was the answer I got.

I’m asking myself: How much more money has vanished from my account?

And the worst thing of all is that they seem to think that this is a good way of conducting business. “Call Belgacom”, they said, “this time of day and you will get a little music and a message saying that they don’t take any phone calls after office hours”.

Progress? Ho hum. Belgacom, the former state monopoly, makes dinosaurs look youthful and virile in comparison. A dead dog can give better customer service than Belgacom. But that’s not what I pay Base for; it’s for a service that is actually in the neighbourhood of the 21st century.

But judgng by their replies today, I should be grateful that they would actually lower themselves to pick up the phone at all.

I grieve, because I like this country so much that it is painful to watch the people here earning themselves a bad name. But sadly, very very sadly, this is only one more example to add to the list of service business companies who behave as if they were government officials whom we should all revere, admire and respect, and tiptoe around so as not to disturb them during their very busy day.

It grieves me seriously to find once again that the idea of The Customer Is Always Right  still has to make any impact in this country.

I’m seriously thinking of switching to a supermarket chain’s GSM service. At least they don’t pretend to have any customer support.

Back

…from six weeks’ R & R, four of which in sunny Sweden. 1.6 kilos richer. Arrived this morning after driving all night, went straight to work. Asking myself if I should have stayed.