Green, Green Glass Of Home

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Should Have Studied Russian

Zdrastvuj, drug!

I wish my attempts to study Russian hadn’t stopped there, with only a few more words and the ability to decode the Russian alphabet. I would have had much use for such skills today, as I seem to be surrounded by Russian-speaking colleagues at the EU Council’s Press Centre, where the EU’s foreign ministers and assorted colleagues will wriggle around the question what to do with the EU-Russian summit on Friday when the two are so at odds with eachother that they aren’t even pretending that there will be any outcome of that meeting; and when plenty of EU member states want the meeting called off altogether. (The reason for the fuss is a quick deterioration in EU-Russian relations, due to Russia’s blocking of Polish meat, which Poland takes as retaliation for being too friendly with the West, and due to Russia’s retaliation against Estonia for moving a Soviet-era monument, with thinly-veiled acts of economical warfare against EU member Estonia. Russia, on the other hand, seems to be having problems with the plans to post new US missiles in Poland and Hungary, pointing at Moscow.)

So you understand that I would have liked to do a little eavesdropping here and there, but sadly, twice have I started studying Russian and twice have I failed. The first time because I was only eight years old, and the second time because I was working as a journalist with irregular hours, and couldn’t attend a fixed-schedule evening course with any consistency.

On that occasion, my reason for attempting again was the increasing threat at that time of unrest in the former Soviet bloc, and the very real prospect of waves of refugees trying to make their waves across to Sweden, where I worked. In fact, another student at that same evening class turned out to be the head of the local state-run refugee camp administration. We quickly agreed that although we were there for the same reason, we equally hoped we wouldn’t have any imanent use for our newly acquired language skills. (We didn’t, it turned out.)

But maybe this time, it’s time to dust off the old Troika 1 textbooks in my bookcase once again. After all, the political development in Russia is becoming increasingly disturbing, and it is certainly casting its shadow over an increasing number of areas.

Going Bananas

I am writing this sitting in the back row of the main press briefing room at the European Council’s bastion. Today, we are all being told everything there is to know about Monday’s General Affairs and External Relations Coucil, with the EU’s chronic knack for acronyms usually called GAERC.

The briefing is off the record, but I managed to sneak up my camera and fire away this shot from my seat to give you an idea about what it looks like (don’t tell anyone, will you).

Waitaminit, you may ask now. What on Earth has a journalist covering the food industry got to do with the monthly meeting of foreign ministers?

The answer is that food issues more often than you think make their way even into foreign policy, international relations, and diplomacy. The reason that triggered my visit today was to find out whether or not there will be any discussion about banana imports, which apparently has ended up on the foreign ministers’ table between dossiers to be considered on US missile shields, Sudan and Darfur, the Middle East, the Balkans, and other things that you might have thought of more importance.

So far, there has been no mention about bananas, but there has been mention about the ongoing meat crisis between Poland and Russia. As you may or may not be aware of, Russia has blocked all meat imports from Poland due to alleged health safety concerns – or, if you ask the Polish, in order to punish the country for its outspokenness against Russia. Poland is one of the former Communist bloc nations that most enthusiastically threw itself into the arms of all things Western as soon as the Iron Curtain was lifted, and many suspect the Russians of wanting to make a point.

Regardless of what you think about that, it is an observable fact that Russia is putting on an impressive procrastination performance in order to stall any and every attempt to solve the issue. The latest correspondence came from Moscow only yesterday, and is already considered way inadequate here in Brussels.

The jury is still out on whether this feud will wreck the entire upcoming summit between the EU and Russia. Everyone assures us that the summit won’t be called off, but the very fact that such talk is circulating gives you an idea about how big this issue has become.

This is just how far-reaching effects all things food sometimes have. It is not merely a matter of eating to stay alive; food contains so much of culture, national pride, identity and politics that a heap of meat can ruin the relations between two of the world’s mightiest powers.

The defence ministers will also meet, but, so far, food related issues are not being discussed by them, I am happy to say. But don’t be surprised if that happens, too, one bad day. The world is smaller than we think.

Wait, now they’re talking bananas after all. Got to go!