Pole Postion

“Who’s representing Poland?” is the standing question here at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries council in Luxembourg. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows.

Poland had a general election on Sunday, and the ruling party’s majority was wiped out by a landslide victory for the opposition. Of course, there is no new government in place yet – it seems as if there will be coalition negotiations – but on Tuesday, Poland is supposed to take part in discussions over fishery quotas.

The problem, as I have already written in this blog, is that Poland is already allowing itself a virtually unlimited quota, as the previous government refused to stop pirate fisheries, and Poland is supposed to be a key player at this meeting. But it also seems that Poland will have a new and more EU-friendly government, and the talk here is that the other member states wouldn’t want to come down too hard on such a government for fear of alienating them.

Meanwhile, a delegate confided that the black-market fisheries is probably a far bigger threat to e.g. cod stocks than the regular fish quotas, overly generous as they may seem.  So something has to be done – but who is going to do it?

On a more positive note, delegates have had troubles hiding their joy at the change of government in Poland. “Yess!” is a word that probably describes the sentiment among many in an accurate way.

Signal To Noise

I just woke everyone up here at the press centre in the Luxembunker.

It’s some time after 19.00 in the evening as I write this, and the journalists here are summing up today’s events at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. That woldn’t take very long, so the calm spreading out here is considerable, and most of us will soon be retreating to our hotel rooms.

That is the kind of nocturnal setting against which I managed to produce today’s biggest noise here. I have had some problems with my computer, which doesn’t want to correspond with the headset I use to make calls via Skypa. So while searching the computer for a solution, I did the mistake of turning on a volume control that I knew from earlier on that I should have kept set to zero.

To cut a long story short, the result – when I some time later unplugged my headset – was a monumental feedback noise. A sharp and penetrating signal sound that would have made most people think that the fire alarmhad gone off. And to make matters worse – my computer froze in that state.

Dozens and dozens of pairs of eyes were staring at me as I frantically tried to kill or muffle the sound. I even considered shoving the computer into its bag and rushing outside, but maybe the security guards would have had some suspicions about that.

Eventually, I was able to quiet the computer by physically ripping the battery out. I then tried very hard to pretend as if it was raining, which has its difficulties when you’re indoors.

Well, at least I woke them up.

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.

…Oh And By The Way

The Luxembunker showed itself from its worst side today: outside temperatures in excess of +25-30 centigrades meant that the tin can conference centre (literally, I am not joking, the whole place is made out of corrugated iron and wooden beams) where the EU ministers’ meeting is held followed the common natural laws and turned into a baking oven. Having reached a state of lightly to medium roasted, we had to abandon plans for a press briefing with the Swedish Agriculture Minister in the Swedish briefing room, because there was only one oxygen atom left in there, and any attempt to pursue any human activity of whatsoever in there would have resulted in a pile of corpses.

Instead, we used the journalists’ lobby, where we were able to find two oxygen atoms, but little else.

“Phew”, panted the Swedish minister after talking to us for a while, wiping sweat from his forehead, “now I think we’ve certainly used up those two oxygen atoms”, looking just as well cooked as the rest of us.

“And then this is the coolest Council meeting in Luxemburg for the last five years”, a member of the Swedish delegation interjected.

As I said, I managed to get out of there before turning crisp, but if your usual politicians emerge deep fried during the next few days, there’s your explanation.

(I must find myself a nice conspiracy theory to go with that. Someone trying to melt the elected representatives in order to sizzle seize power themselves? Any suggestions?)

Lucky Me

Indeed, I survived the Luxembunker, but I’m not sure the delegations will.

I got home at 23.30, sank down on my couch with my wife and watched a movie, and I’ll go get myself a nice snack and enjoy it in my robe as soon as I’ve finished writing this.

That’s not what the ministers and their delegations are experiencing.

The interpreters at the Agriculture Ministers’ meeting were scheduled to be on duty until midnight, we learned this afternoon. Later, people familiar with the matter informed us journalists, there will be nightly discussions and general haggling into the wee hours, until times probably ujnknown to the rest of mankind, and then they’re supposed to be back at tomorrow’s leg of the meeting starting at 10.00. (I won’t be at Day Two for other reasons, but that’s another story.)

Moreover, since these are ministers and delegations from all the four…teen corners of the EU, most of them have had to set off at who knows what hour this morning – some testified to having rolled out of bed at 05.00. A full 24-hour shift… followed by another one. And then back to the usual soup of urgent issues, parliamentary questions, documents and issues piling up, public visits, meetings with voters, industrialists, organisations, reporters digging their noses in the wastepaper baskets, etc etc etc etc.

The fun thing is that the EU – well, not the Agriculture Ministers, but still – has recently adopted a working hours directive that severely curbs workers’ ability all over the whole EU to work too long hours. Hospitals and other shift-working places have already had to reschedule their staff quite extensively to comply with the new rules.

And yet… the EU ministers fail to apply the working hour rules to themselves.

I raised this issue with one delegation member, who immediately promised that the EU’s new working hour rules would most certainly be applied when her country took the rotating presidency. Or so we hope.

But as I sit here, comfortable and snug in my sofa in my own home with my family close by, I can’t help but think. Yes, their jobs may be well paid. Yes, they may have all earthly power and glory within their area at their command or something like that. Yes, they may even be flying Learjets through the night.

But for all the perks and fringe benefits in the world… I certainly wouldn’t like to trade places with them.

Off To The Luxembunker

Monday means off to the Luxembunker again. Wish me good luck.

The Gas-Guzzling Travelling Circus

This week, the EU Parliament holds its monthly session in Strasbourg. Strasbourg, France, that is. Although being based in Brussels and having built a monstrous castle at the top of a hill there, they travel once a month to another ghastly castle to convene. This building – erected solely for the Parliament – is then EMPTY for the remaining 307 days each year.

The rest of the year, 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 1,220 officials, and countless hordes of journalists, lobyists and other creatures travel from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again for week-long sessions. The MEPs alone need 15 lorries to haul all their documents back and forth each month, as we all understand is necessary in this day and age of e-mail.
Oh, yes, and I forgot the 525 people who travel to Strasbourg from Luxemburg, where the Parliament’s administrative offices so wisely have been located.

The cost for this travelling circus amounts to millions of euros alone. If you only count in money, that is.

The EU has recently decided to cut greenhouse gases by 20 per cent. A couple of EU Parliamentarians therefore amused themselves by investigating the environmental cost for this madness, and today announce that the CO2 emissions from all this is at least 20,000 tonnes per year. You can read more about it in this excellent publication, one of the best news sources on all things EU.

So, why doesn’t the EU Parliament stop this? The answer is simple: They want to, but they do not have the power to change it.

That’s food for thought. The only directly elected institution in the EU is so aggressively powerless that it can’t even take a decision on where to house itself.

Now you might understand why I usually don’t bother to travel to Strasbourg to cover what they are doing.

One million people signed a petition some time ago to put an end to this. But such a decision has to be taken unanimously by the member states. And there’s one country that just won’t give up.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one.

I Saw An Eyesore: Welcome To The Luxembunker

Having recovered from my Luxemburg odyssey, I must deliver on my promise to tell you the story on what the EU ministers are doing there three times a year.

It’s actually pretty simple. Luxemburg tried to grab the position as seat for the then EC institutions in the beginning of the Union’s history, but the squabbling among the member states meant they couldn’t agree on a formal decision. Meanwhile, Brussels happily offered the institutions to locate there instead, and so Luxemburg found itself snubbed. Having the various minister groups’ monthly meetings there in April, June and October, is the consolation prize for the country.

For this purpose, they are refurbishing a huge white monster for a congress centre, which, in good EU tradition, is taking its time to become finished – the latest forecast for its opening is for 2012. Meanwhile, the minsters are convening in what can only be described as a tin can.

This picture (right) shows what this place, the Kiem Conference Centre, looks like from where the delegates enter. The two shiny metal tubes sticking out on either side are not some inventive central vaccuuming system, but corridors leading to different parts of the premises. And no, the black building to the left is not still under construction; that’s actually what it looks like. Either designed to have the heat insulation on the outside, or just heavily soundproof for reasons I can only imagine.

Here’s another view of this complex, which apparently has won some sort of architecture prize or another; a factoid that only reinforces my already firm conviction that in order to become an architect, you absolutely, positively need to be stark raving mad.

My friend and colleague Patrik, well known to readers of this blog by now, refers to the Luxembunker along the lines of ‘a closed institution for the confinement of politicians’.

That is certainly an impression that is greatly amplified by one observation I made at the rear security perimeter. As you can see on this next picture (right), the steel fence is topped by a few rows of barbed wire.

And, as you can see, these barbed wire rows actually tilt inwards, which can only mean one thing: They are not there to keep people from getting in… but to keep people from getting out.

Quite frankly, I was at first convinced that this place was a prison, or possibly a closed institution of some kind.

Some of you will now immediately make a connection between the latter and the EU, which, of course, is little else than malign slander.

But what are you suposed to believe, when this sight is what meets you? This next picture (below) shows the side facing the entrance to the press centre. (No, you don’t have to climb the ladder in the middle of the picture to get there; all you need is to get through a gap in the perimeter littered with barbed wire and manned by a security guard.)

In the press centre , you have the obligatory wall-to-wall carpets, but little else. The rooms are made up of cubicle modules. Unpainted wooden columns support the steel roof. In the briefing rooms, where ministers meet the press, the wall-to-wall carpets continue up the walls. You could probably keep walking and suddenly find yourself hitting the ceiling by mistake.

Those walls are so grey that some Eurocrats probably blend in easily; maybe it’s intentional, to provide camouflage in case the media gets too intrusive. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Eurocrats in grey suits still left behind in there by mistake. (“Has anybody seen Leonard??” “-I’m right here!” “-Where?Step away from the wall so we can see you!”)

I feel sorry for Patrik, who is a TV reporter, and who has to try to make them stand out against that backdrop enough to be visible on-screen.

But, in contrast to the press centres in Brussels, you have to pay for the privilege of working in this warehouse: the deposit for the right to surf the Internet, sit at a long table, and use a telephone which you can’t call outside Luxemburg with (now there’s a definition of local calls if I ever saw one), is 15 euros. OK, you get it back when you leave, but that requires you to check out, which I have already talked about.

The food on sale is as overpriced as any given BMW, the most overrated car on the face of the Earth. Luckily, there’s a large shopping mall just across the road.

But it’s such a shame that such a beautiful, clean and picturesque city as Luxemburg should be littered by such an eyesore.

Let’s just hope it gets recycled into the can crusher by mistake next time the rubbish truck swings by.

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.

Belgium Isn’t Working

(As transcribed from handwritten notes that I scribbled on a tram this morning.)

I thought the other day that I ought to write something nice about Belgium. After all, all said and done, I do like this country very much.

Then – I was stranded by a sudden strike.

This time, it was the train personnel that decided to walk out  – on the very same day that I was going to take the train to Luxemburg to cover the EU Agriculture Ministers’ meeting there. (Why on earth they have to meet in Luxemburg a couple of times each year, instead of Brussels as is customary otherwise, is another story. I have a limited daily capacity for rants, so that’s for another day.)

The train staff is upset with all the violence they are being exposed to, for which one can have some sympathy. Exactly how this will change by quitting work for a few hours is something I have yet to comprehend, though.

Only recently, the firefighters at Brussels International Airport (aka Zaventem) walked out in protest against who knows what, bringing the entire airport to a standstill. And on and on it goes, strike, strike, strike, and such have the state of affairs been ever since I first came to Belgium in 1995.

While I cannot entirely blame the rail company for their staff walking out (although I’d like to), I do blame them for their complete lack of customer care in moments like these.

The ticket office at the station I was to depart from – Gare du Midi – was shut, visitors being met by a short notice saying there’s a strike, sorry. All of us stranded passengers – including people like myself, who had already bought and paid for our tickets, were referred to ONE (1) tiny information booth, manned by a hapless young woman who could only shrug her shoulders at our questions.

I asked if there would be any train to Luxemburg today. She said she didn’t know, probably not.

I asked how long the strike would go on for. She said she didn’t know. (I later found out reading Metro.)

I asked where I could get my money back. She didn’t know, but handed me a general complaints form.

I asked why the ticket office wasn’t open. She said it was because the staff hadn’t been able to get to work because of the strike.

What complete and utter rubbish. How come, then, that I and so many other people could get to the station? And if they knew about the strike since last night – which they did – why didn’t they drive, walk, take the tram, bus, or even bicycle to work?

No, this rather gives the impression that the SNCB/NMBS was too much of a coward to face its paying customers, and that its staff decided to give themselves a day off to bask in the unexpected summer weather we’ve had here for the last few days.

Expecting people will put up with being treated like cattle.

Excuse me, SNCB/NMBS, but we don’t.

This is the kind of nonsense that went on in England 30 years ago, I explained to a TV team from RTBF, which interviewed me as I had made my second attempt to squeeze some information from the (dis)information booth. The UK has come a long way since then, but Belgian workers still can’t seem to be bothered to show up for work of the weather’s too nice.

Eventually, in spite of having told the TV crew that I’d have to head for home, I was bailed out by my friend and colleague Patrik, correspondent for the Swedish Television, who let me ride with him.

Seems like driving is the safest way, after all, to be sure that you will actually get where you are going.

So much for eco-friendly travel.


As in “I am an”.

I almost published a story this morning, where I claimed that eel is on the verge of becoming extent because of over-fishing of the larvae. Which is true, and which will be the theme of the EU Agriculture Minister’s meeting in Luxemburg on Monday, which I plan to cover.

However, in my zeal to explain the eel, I managed to write something about the larvae being unable to swim to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce.

It was only this morning that it ocurred to me that eel larvae do not reproduce; they do need to grow up a bit first.

My only defence is that one might easily get confused by the way one’s own offspring behaves…