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?

A Short Truth

“Sorry to say, it isn’t the dictatorship in Burma that has blown away”.

–Quote from the blog of Enn Kokk

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.

Disgusted By The British Media

Rarely have I been so disgusted by the British media as I have today, and their betrayal is twofold.

To begin with, while the most appalling of unmentionable atrocities are being uncovered at a former orphanage in Jersey, the media chooses not to hunt down the perpeetrators still alive and do their job to investigate what exactly went on or how the authorities could let the cover-up continue FORTY YEARS. Who were the protectors in high places? Who of the highbrass were even involved? And who is going to go out and fight for the poor. poor small inocent chidren?

No, instead, the media is full of prince Harry’s days in Afghanistan.

There we have it: a Royal Life is more valuable than scores of abused ordinary children.

That would have bene enough to make me vomit as it is. But the second thing that makes my stomach turn today is the revelation that the British media has collectively agreed to a massive cover-up of the same prince’s deployments.

And they do not even have the decency to be ashamed of betraying their mission in such a way. Rather, they brag about it.

The obvious question is: What else is being covered up? What else has the media agreed to stay silent on, when its first, main, and last task is to report, disclose and reveal?

I most certainly disagree with the main argument against publishing the news that prince Harry had been sent to Afghanistan: that his life would be in danger. That may be true – but, sorry to say and putting it bluntly, that would be his own fault. Nobody is pointing a gun against his Royal Head and forcing him to go there. If the risks are too big, then by all means stay at home.

But what has happened his time is that somebody whose job it is to be in a public position, has decided to do something that he decides would not gain from media coverage, and has therefore had the media agree to his version and participate in a cover-up.

Am I the only one to see that this principle, once the line has been crossed, could easily be applied to yet another thing, and another, and another? What else wold the Royals like to do that doesn’t hold up to the daylight of publicity, that they would be able to persuade the media to stay silent about?

And why do the Holy Royals have such a privilege in today’s modern world, may I ask? Once again, is the Royal Life worth so much to my fellow Britons, that they are prepared to sell their souls for it?

Today, I feel disgusted to call myself a journalist. And a Briton.

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.

How Dare Fat Westerners Perpetuate Slavery?

I usually try not to be angry when writing nowadays, but this time, I am making a calculated exception.

It has become a trend lately – in the Western world, I should add – to argue AGAINST Fairtrade. All sorts of fine economical arguments are presented; we write about the latest addition from Sweden to this case in Foodwire today.

This just makes me really, really angry.

While the organisations behind the Faitrade idea need to be consistently scrutinised and examined – it has happened before, and will happen again, than charitable organisations fall into temptations of embezzling money, and other misbehaviours – attacking the whole idea is something only a fat, lazy and ignorant Westerner, safely holed up behind his/her cuddly desk with as little contact as possible with the real world, could do.

For starters, ever since I started writing about the food industry in 2000, I have regularly written reports about outright slavery in the cocoa growing trade. Yes, slavery, a few hundred years since we abolished that practice in our cosy corner of the rich world.

We are talking about children being trafficked, beaten, and exploited, just so you and me can enjoy nice little chockies at a few cents less that we’d otherwise have paid. And we’re talking about reports that are so well-founded that they have forced the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers – albeit kicking and screaming – into attempts to do something about it. (So far, very little has been done, though).

Real lives being ruined. Real little kids having their tender backs ripped open by whips of ruthless adults.

Do the crying and disillusioned faces of these children ever show up in the figures of these Western economist’s calculations?

Moreover, it is always conveniently forgotten that very tempting alternative crops for e.g. coffee growers, should coffee prove unprofitable, are high-paying products such as coca bushes or opium poppies. Crops that pay far higher per kilo, and thus yield more profit per mile as they are carried on labourers’ backs in roadless areas of countries like Colombia.

Do the crying and disillusioned faces of the drug addicts of the Western world ever show up in the figures of these Western economist’s calculations?

Maybe some people should lift their fat backsides and take field trip into the real world. Or, if they support the aforementioned facts that fair trade seeks to avert, why not sell their own children into slavery and drug abuse?

Let the neo-cons do that if they wish, but stay away from my kids and the children of those cocoa, tea and coffee growers toiling for less than these Western vultures earn in the time it would take them to read this blog post.

Flying Fish

Among the many things I find difficult to comprehend is the fact that Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian fishers fish off the coast of Mauritania.

It’s true. Fishermen (and, presumably, -women) sail their boats from their homes on the Baltic coast, through Öresund and Cattegat between Denmark and Sweden, through the English channel, down all the way along the west coast of Europe, past Gibraltar and all that, past the Canary Islands, before tossing their trawls and nets and whatnot into the waters west of Africa, where the Sahara falls into the Atlantic ocean.

I was too stunned to learn about this to remember to ask what happens to the fish, but I do hope they have the common sense to land it somewhere close by and not sail all the way back with it again. How it gets to the frozen fish factories where it is packaged for sale is another question I have no answer for, but I do hope that it is’t among the fish that is flown from Europe to be gutted in Singapore and then all the way back again in fillet form.

The reason for all this is simple. The EU has methodically depleted fish stocks in its own waters, and now, it is buying fish quotas from poor countries in the third world. Mauritania, being one of the poorest with a GDP per capita about one twelfth of that of, say, the UK, and some 40 per cent of its people living bneath the poverty line, is one of them.

Of course, this causes the same problems as in European waters, as fishing boats from a dozen EU nations descend on Mauritanian seas with the same methods they have already used to vacuum-clean their own sea floors. Fish stocks in Mauritanian waters are already threatened by foreign fishers, and national dishes of fish and rice are becoming a luxury.

For this modern-day colonialism, the EU pays Mauritania EUR 86m. A lot of money as it may seem, it is a sum of the kind that an entity like the EU blows out of its nose before breakfast. Pocket money, by another word.

But I suppose the Mauritanians can always buy frozen fish imported from multinational food companies in the EU with it. Orginally from out of their own waters, perhaps: now there’s a new definition of the concept of recycling.

Olof Palme Suspected Of Paedophilia

Today, I was supposed to write something fun about Christmas. But I cannot. Yesterday, the most hushed-down scandal in Swedish history resurfaced again, and it fills me with such grief. It is a story that is on par with the infamous Belgian paedophile scandal, with the only difference that the cover-up has succeeded in this case.

The scandal in essence is that there is reason to believe that two Swedish Prime ministers during the 1970s, the internationally known Olof Palme, and Thorbjörn Fälldin, were customers at a network of prostitutes which involved underage girls. In other words, should the allegations be true, these men were paedophiles.

And not only them. The investigation – hushed down as it is – involves a long list of top politicians and celebrities of the time. Some 70 names have been mentioned.

The girls, around 14 at the time, have now grown up, and yesterday, they held a press conference where two of them are demanding compensation fron the Swedish state.

But it doesn’t end there. As I have mentioned, there has never been a proper investigation of these matters. Olof Palme lied to the entire Swedish people when he denied that the then head of the Swedish police, Carl Persson, had written to him to inform him that his Minister of Justice, Lennart Geijer, was frequenting prostitutes and could therefore be subject to blackmail – especially since some of the prostitutes were from the Communist bloc. Mr Persson’s note was disclosed in the daily Dagens Nyheter in 1977, but Olof Palme could see from the way the article was written that the paper did not have access to the note itself. Olof Palme very aggressively denied that the note had ever existed and called the whole thing rumours and worse, but in 1991, the note was declassified and confirmed that Mr Geijer was in fact buying sex.

Why Olof Palme put his entire career at stake to lie so blatantly – about something he likely knew was true – remains an enigma; he was murdered in 1986 and took his secrets to his grave. But the fact is that the former prostitutes yesterday repeated that he would hve beneone of their customers. Did he lie in order to protect himself?

Worse still, his Minister of Justice – Mr Geijer – was trying at the time to decriminalise paedophilia (yes, it’s true). Thank God he was stopped, but that further adds to the sleaziness of it all.

Meanwhile, the girls – several of whom have identified top politicians as customers, independently of one another – descended into personal problems and drug abuse, frustrated about the massive cover-up form the establishment. They have never budged one inch from their story; they insist to this day that what they allege is true.

The whole thing has resurfaced from time to time in Sweden, but has just as regularly vanished from the headlines again and led to no repercusisons at all. Only one person has ever been tried and found guilty, Sigvard Hammar, a marginal figure who was a TV journalist as well as a paraplegic and thus less into the circles of power, who also openly admitted abusing underage girls. But he was sentenced for procuring, not for abusing minors.

There is much more to say about this disgusting, nauseating, stomach-turning, sinister, evil, deprave, vicious mess. How Dagens Nyheter’s source, criminologist Leif G W Persson who worked for Carl Persson at the time, found not only his desk but his entire room emptied the day after Dagens Nyheter broke the story. How the cover-up in 1977 was orchestrated by people involving the then Chief Constable of Stockholm, Hans Holmér, the same police officer who later made a complete mess of the murder investigation of Olof Palme – for whatever reason. How Thorbjörn Fälldin before the Swedish Parliament in 1977 stated that the entire list of suspects must have been false simply because his own name was on it – and how the Swedish nation chose to believe him.

And how an unknown number of young girls had their lives ruined by the men in power that were supposed to provide their ultimate security.

So, will there be a proper investigation this time? At present, it doesn’t seem likely. The story has already been moved to the back pages, and it seems that the whole thing will once again be ground down into the bureaucratic machinery.

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.

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. 

Wise Men Say

Lo and behold, the EU leaders actually did manage to agree on a new constitution sorry, Reform Treaty. Already on Thursday night, that is, not, as I erroneously wrote in a previous blog post, during this weekend. I must have expected negotiations to drag on into the unknown hours, as always, but this time they were finished already at 2 am.

That’s such a stupid macho thing to do, by the way. Do they really think that we are impressed by them squabbling on into the night, emerging red-eyed at some hour no-one can imagine? Especially since they usually don’t get started before late in the afternoon? Is it supposed to be better to negotiate at night, and look tough and uncompromising, than to get some sleep and take discussions with all your mental capacities in place?

The current negotiations about the future Belgian government have been dancing to the same tune, speaking of that. Every other day, we are told on the news that an agreement has been made after hard negotiations at 3 am… 3.30 am… and so on. RUBBISH! I don’t give a toss for any agreement that’s constructed at that hour. Don’t try to tell me that it’s supposed to be better than anything hammered out by people who are awake and alert. And bearing in mind that nocturnal negotiations are usually staged to look nocturnal, when they didn’t have to be, it’s all such a ridiculous attempt at looking potent to the public that it makes my stomach turn.

Anyway. I’m not going to immerse myself in the details of the new constitution sorry, Reform Treaty – there is already, as always, an excellent account of it on EUObserver which you can read by clicking here. However, I do note that in the margin of things, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s idea of setting up a panel of “wise men”, to examine the future of the EU in the long to very long term, has been all but dismissedby EU Commissioner Olli Rehn.

I quite understand him. Where in the EU machinery would you actually find any wise men?

Across The Great Divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Stinks

Here’s the latest gossip on why Commissioner Günter Verheugen will be able to break the EU regulations, lie to half a billion taxpayers about it – and get away with it.

Word has reached me that the talk of the town in Brussels is that even though the Commissioner has broken the Code of Conduct by having an affair with his Chief of Staff, Petra Erler; even though it seems that this might have influenced the decision to hire her for her current job; and even though the Commissioner is blatantly lying about it, the reason why he will get away with it all is that Ms Erler is good friends with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Forget that the Commissioners are supposed to be completely independent from all instructions from member states. The world of realpolitik speaks a different language.

Commissioner Verheugen’s boss, José Manuel Barroso, is said to be keen on securing a second term in office as President of the Commission, as his first term expires in 2009. Therefore, the rumours go, he does not want to get into any trouble with the German chancellor, and therefore, the same rumours have it, he will turn a blind eye to the breach of regulations carried out by Commissioner Verheugen and the German chancellor’s good friend.

Thus, the Commissioner and the Chief of Staff can continue breaking the EU regulations as happily as they wish.

If all this is true, which I cannot attest to or validate in any way, then the German chancellor is as involved in all this as anyone else. Then she is both assisting in violating the rights of 500m European citizens to have their tax money spent according to the rules – AND making new, fresh violations of a number of EU laws and regulations herself.

In the US, it would have been impossible to get away with all this, as history has proven, since the United States has once and for all very wisely established fundamental power-sharing and checks and balances in its Constitution. In the EU, however, there are no such control mechanisms. Once in office, the EU Commission answers legally to no-one.
Morally, they answer to us tax payers, but there is no legal way to demand this responsibility.

Thus, the Commissioner can continue lying and continue demanding that we all believe in his fairytales. “This is a private matter…” – thus speaks the arrogance of power.

This leaves me with the question: If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, then what is the opposite of “constitution”?

Investigate, But Not Us

Margot Wallström, vice president of the EU Commission, today writes in defence of us journalists, and our right to do our job to act on behalf of the general public without risking our lives, on her blog (read the full entry here).

Very nice. Indeed, Ms Wallström is usually generous with media access herself, being one of the few Commissioners to have a blog and inviting those of us who work for Swedish media to regular press breakfasts.

However, the very first comment to that post on her blog pointed out how the Commission acted only a few years ago, when Stern Magazine correspondent Hans-Martin Tillack did just that, and examined the EU itself. He was arrested by police and his material seized for reporting on fraud within the EU statistics office Eurostat, a blatant violation of all fundamental freedom of press characteristics and an abusive behaviour unworthy of the emerging semi-federal superpower we call the European Union. Adding insult to injury, the EU’s own court ruled that the Belgian police raid of course had noooooothing to do with complaints from EU institutions (read the full story here; note that that verdict came only a year ago).

So how can Ms Wallström advocate press freedom, when she happily participates in such an atempt to silence an ‘unruly’ reporter, the commentator asks, demanding (again) an apology from the Commissioner.

We shall see whether or not such an apology will emerge. I must remember to ask her personally next time I meet her.

Liar Liar

This is the face of a man who seems to be about to lie himself out of a job.

It became only too clear on Thursday, as fresh new information about his – EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen’s – affair with his chiefof staff Petra Erler became public. German media have quoted a party colleague saying that he confessed the affair to her, and you can find a picture of Mr Verheugen and Ms Erler hand in hand here. Click here for another picture of the two, which is said to depict Mr Verheugen leaving Ms Erler’s home in the early morning of August 2 this year.

And yet, the Commissioner has the NERVE to maintain the same story as always: I have nothing to say… my marriage is a private business.

Excuse me, Commissioner, but while your MARRIAGE may be private, your RELATIONS with your STAFF is not. Especially if they turn out to have affected their appointments to their jobs.

That is something I and several other journalists pointed out to the Commission’s spokespeople at Thursday’s press conference, only to be met but the usual stonewalling, a number of variants of the old “No Comments” line.

At least, we finally got them to repeat Mr Verheugen’s statement that he did not have an affair with Ms Erler “at the time of her appointment”. (No word on whether that happened before or after.)

That means that he has now nailed himself to his story, which is becoming increasingly impossible as details surface. There are pictures and witnesses to tell a different story already, and there will probably be more to come. His wife has publicly admitted that she is leaving him.

(The latter fact made Mr Verheugen’s story even more hollow, as he clung on to the statement “I and my wife have agreed not to discuss this in public”. Well, newsflash: Your wife just did. Doesn’t that make you a liar once again?)

“He won’t survive this”, a German-speaking journalist remarked to me as we were leaving the press conferece. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that Mr Verheugen is lying half a billion Europeans straight to their faces

I and my fellow journalists (and European citizens) do not intend to hold any moral tribunal here. If Mr Verheugen is having extramarital affairs, it technically has nothing to do with his job. However, if he is having an affair or has had an affair with his chief of staff, it most certainly has everything to do with his job. Moreover, it is also a blatant breach of the Code of Conduct laid down not by us, but by the European Union itself.

The Commission’s President Barroso now faces the following choices:

1) Either he believes his Commissioner’s version. Then he is sadly gullible, and risks his own job if proven wrong.

2) Or he chooses to disbelieve him. Then he must sack the Commissioner.

3) Or he knows that Mr Verheugen is lying. Then he is also lying to you and me and everyone else, and equally arrogant in the notion that he or they will get away with it. Then he SHOULD lose his job.

I’m sorry for sounding enraged. But I cannot tolerate the sheer arrogance of someone shoving lies down my throat and expecting to get away with it. And the arrogance – once again, the arrogance – of how the Commissioner has so far responded to the allegations is unworthy of someone whose salary is paid forby me and half a billion other Europeans.

Do the right thing, Commissioner. At least former President Clinton had the guts to confess to his similar extramarital activities, which saved him by a hair’s breadth. If you could at least have the same courage, you might escape this sorry mess slightly less battered than what will probably now be the case.

The alternative is that you risk your job – and the rest of the Commission’s jobs as well.

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.

Wheat Panic

The world wheat market is in a state of panic after demand is quickly outpacing supply, due to failed crops and higher demand for cereals for ethanol production for fuel. Prices have reached an all time high on the Chicago commodities market, the Financial Times reports today, and this was also our top story in Foodwire.

There’s a lot to be said about this. Bread will become more expensive, but is this only a bad thing? After all, the Western world’s love for white, wheat-based bread is causing health problems, and these helath problems are being exported to developing countries where people think they’ll be happier if they switch to the white bread that the rich world is already constipating on.

However, the alternatives such as rye are becoming more expensive too, so there’s little chance that this alone will be enough to wean people from wheat-based bread and start asking for healthier dark bread instead. But there’s another dimension to the story.

While there is a quickly approaching shortage of cereals, which will also affect other products as meat and dairy since higher cereal prices mean higher feed prices an, thus, higher production costs for livestock owners, the European Union is annually handing out floods of taxpayers’ money to pay farmers not to grow anything on their lands. Many of these have already been converted for other seage, many of them irrevokably.

The inherent inertia of the system means that the EU still hasn’t managed to ask for ploughs to be put into these fallow fields anew. So while you’re paying more for you daily bread, with the other hand. you’re paying taxes to keep those food prices up (and possible to speed up a global food shortage).

Something’s wrong with this picture.

Please, Mr. Postman

It seems as if the mail strikes in Ghent have finally come to an end. And as predicted, they now have a truckload of mail to deliver, giving them an even worse workload, the protest against which was the reason why they went on strike in the first place.

Actually, so much undelivered mail has piled up that the Ghent postal service has had to take on no less than 40 extra temporary staff to clear the backlog.

Seems like it would have been a better deal for all involved to agree peacefully before it went to industrial action.

Told You So!

Well, it’s Friday evening at 10pm, and the EU Summit is still going on. Judging from the latest reports, they’ll be haggling long into Saturday as well, and if you were planning to have a European Prime Minister for dinner on Sunday, don’t be too surprised if s/he doesn’t turn up.

They’re slowly being roasted elsewhere, a few storeys up in the Justus Lipsius Building on Rue de la Loi, Brussels.

I thought this summit would be lengthy, but I must say I am surprised at how long it seems that it will be. Apparently, Britain’s and Poland’s objections have tunred out to be harder to overcome than expected, and now France has thrown another spanner in the works – or should I say “wooden clog”, sabot in French, the throwing of which into machines during early Industrialism coined the term sabotage – by seemingly tried to delete the EU’s focus on free competition.

This is seriously outrageous. If there’s anything the EU has got right – apart from  being able to prevent war in pour part of the world – then it is to fight for good competition for the benefit of European consumers. Just look at how they’ve take on Microsoft, noone else has done that! And if there’s something France is god at, it’s state-aid, protectionism, and anything else that distorts free competition. And now Monsieur Sarkozy wants that to become EU policy?

Sure, he has all kinds of explanations why this isn’t really the case, and so on. But I get the creeps when the first effort of the new French President is to overthrow the good work the EU is doing and plunge it down into the mire of oligarchy.

Not to mention that the EU has problems already with this summit.

Someone Stole My Seat!

It wasn’t enough that I went to the EU Summit press centre the day before yesterday and reserved the last available workstation. Today, as I arrived here, someone had taken my place.

I’m not going to make a big song and dance about it – it works to sit on a sofa, too, as long as the WiFi connection works.

I’ll just refer to my nice colleagues here as vultures and leave it at that.

…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?)

The Teletubbies Cometh

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

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

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

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

1) Tinky Winky is purple.

2) Tinky Winky carries a handbag.

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disinventing Service, The Belgian Way

Belgian people are usually very friendly and nice when you meet them privately. We have many good friends here whom we appreciate very much, and who have been great blessings to know. So it is therefore extra tragic that as soon as you put a Belgian behind a counter or in any other service function, s/he turns into Basil Fawlty.

These last few week, I have had cascades of bad experiences of that kind, each of which is a story on its own. I have had to call, call, call, call, shout, yell, rant and rave at a car glass company to come and fix my car’s broken window as they had agreed to do (they finally turned up in the middle of the night), I have been scorned by checkout staff at my local supermarket for being a paying customer, I have been rudely told off by waiting staff for complaining that we didn’t get what we ordered at a restaurant – and had another argument when trying to explain that I wasn’t going to pay for food that I didn’t receive – and to round it off nicely, today, I had someone at the call centre of the famous Belgian rail company slam the phone down on me (after him being rude and generally disinterested) when I called and asked why their Internet booking system didn’t seem to accept any Visa cards (yes, there was enough money on them, yes, we did try several different cards).

Previous experiences include being yelled at by a toilet lady because my brother-in-law from Sweden, who only wanted to use the public lavatory, did not speak French; and the whole story about when it took Belgacom five visits and numerous calls to do such a simple thing as connecting a phone – at one point, they managed to hardwire us with our neighbour’s phone – is a story in itself that I hope to share some day.

My friend‘s tale of having to threaten a local appliances chain with legal action in order for them to hand her computer back to her after repairing it – her own computer – is a story she’ll have to tell herself.

I just can’t fathom this. More often than not, people in such functions act as if their jobs were so below them that their customers are, too. They take an attitude of being some sort of Government officials, before whom you’d better take your hat off and bow down in humility, for them to lower themselves to even hearing your request.

In fact, I have even found that it works better if you play Opposite World with them: if you as a customer constantly apologise to them, things work better.

The idea that we as paying customers pay their salary just doesn’t seem to enter their heads. Rather, they seem cross with us for keeping them at work, rather than sitting at the local pub drinking Hoegaarden on the taxpayers’ expense.

I know that this is a harsh way to say things. But during my total of about five years in this country, I have been so rudely treated so many times by so many different people who were supposed to be customer-friendly that I most certainly see a pattern. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. And I feel that it is time to speak up.

I do not want to be treated like a piece of dirt just because I’m getting my groceries. All I want is my groceries. You don’t even have to smile or say hi, like many don’t here, just check my stuff out and let me pay and I won’t bother you any more. But as soon as they make a mistake or mess up, they get angry with me.

In other countries, the customer is always right. In Belgium, the customer is always wrong.

There are some fine examples of the opposite, and I hope to one day be able to publish my own Good Brussels Guide of companies and shops who treat you well. But far to often to be acceptable in any way, you get the opposite. And that’s just not good enough.

Some 30 years ago, it was all the same in Britain. We British treated our customers like garbage, to our everlasting shame. We used to handle complaints by shrugging our shoulders and say “Sorry, I don’t know”; “sorry” here generally being used in this context meaning “I don’t know and I don’t care“.

But then came Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch, and we saw ourselves and how awful we behaved. We moved on.

You’d hope that there would some day be some Fawltieckxe Toren/Tour des Fawltieckx on Belgian TV, but frankly I doubt that it would do the trick. Basil Fawlty is quite an ordinary figure in Belgian everyday life, and I doubt very much that people would get the jokes at all… because his behaviour seems to be considered quite normal here.

(click to play)

Say Hi To Bono From Me

Unbelievable!

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

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

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

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

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

This is worrying.

Strike, As If We Care

A number of mailmen and -women went on strike in Ghent today as a protest against their heavy workload.

Ehrm, excuse me, just exactly what do they want to achieve by this? The letters aren’t exactly going to go away – they’ll just pile up in the warehouses. And once Postman Piet and his colleagues get back to work, they’ll consequently have a much larger workload to deal with. Which was why they went on strike in the first place.

I’ve said it before: this country goes on strike way too easily and frivolously. Sometimes, it seems, without thinking about what the cost will be for themselves.