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.

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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.