Why Are We Here?

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter today puts its finger on a sore spot: Why have an EU Summit right now at all?

The whole idea of inserting a third summit each year was part of the Lisbon strategy, intended at boosting EU competivity, a (traditionally) unsigned editorial notes. However, it has turned out that the EU manages to boost its capacity for increased competition power perfectly well without the politicians telling people how to do it, thank you very much, and the spring summit is increasingly becoming a bit of a yawn generator. Even Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, concedes on his blog that “this meeting with the European Council will possibly not go down in history as one of the very biggest”.

However, Dagens Nyheter fumes (to the general amusement of my Swedish colleagues here at the EU Summit press room, who have spent the morning speculating who actually wrote the vitriolic editorial in question – the writer was more or less officially identified as Barbro Hedvall), the EU cannot back down from holding spring summits now, because that would be seen as a loss of prestige and – more importantly – a source of speculation about why the leaders wouldn’t want to meet each other, especially who didn’t want to meet who.

I’m not so sure I agree with the criticism. After all, it is never a bad idea that people – especially at high levels – get together and talk. Even if they currently may have little to talk about, there might come other times when having an institutionalised forum may be crucal, instead of wasting precious energy on procedure and formalities. After all, that is what the EU is all about – defusing possible points of conflict before they flare up.

And therein lies a PR problem, because it is always difficult to sell to the general public that we have avoided conflicts to the point where they never happened. “What conflicts?” we EU citizens ask, oblivious to the long and bloody history of our part of the world, where war between the people groups now represented at the negotiation table was the norm, not the exception.

I do realise that the bloodless summits require lots of travelling, security arrangements, and so on. But I’ll take that over war every time.

For Exit, Don’t Follow The Green Sign

Finding an emergency exit from the European Union no longer involves following any green signs – at least not in Sweden, where one of the two heads of the Green Party has stated that she no longer agrees with the party’s line to demand that Sweden leavs the Union.

Maria Wetterstrand broke the news today, claiming that the EU’s environmental work has been a deciding factor, as well as its shift from a ‘rich man’s club’ towards including a number of more or less impoverished nations in Eastern Europe. In spite of her flagrant break with the party’s official standpoint, she will continue to be the co-leader of the party (Miljöpartiet de Gröna), which prides itself of a dual leadership

While I am contemplating which is the bigger surprise – a complete U-turn by one of the fiercest EU critics in Sweden, or the fact that she will be able to continue to lead a party with which she disagrees on such a crucial issue – the Swedish EU Minister, liberal Cecilia Malmström, couldn’t resist the temptation to muse at the shift in standpoints in a recent press release.

“I welcome Maria Wetterstrand’s turn on the EU issue. The exit demand that Miljöpartiet advocates is not realistic and not something that is asked for among the citizens either and not among Miljöpartiet’s voters either”, she writes with an ill-concealed smirk.

‘Vultures’, I chuckle, as I raise my political binoculars to spot them circling over what may very well blow up into ferocious in-fighting within Miljöpartiet, one of the EU minister’s political opponent parties, which also happens to be one of the key parties that (according to poll after poll) will likely dethrone Ms. Malmström’s government in the next general election in 2010.

There’s nothin’ like a good political brawl.

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.

Supersize Tuesday

As most of you are aware of, today is the (in)famous Super Tuesday in the US, when a large number of states hold their primaries and when it could be de facto decided whch two candidates will stand against each other at the November election.

However, it also happens to be this year’s Mardi Gras, or Fettisdagen, or Shrove Tuesday, when you are either supposed to put on enough fat (hence the “Fat Tuesday” of the two former) or seek abolition for your sins (hence “Shrove Tuesday” for the latter) before Lent begins tomorrow, starting with Ash Wednesday when I suppose you are supposed to don sackcloth and ashes in fasting and repentance.

Remembering my previous blog post, there is probably quite a bit of repentance necessary for most of us Westerners; seeking absolution for our oppression of the Third World would be a very appropriate thing to do. But today is the Fat Tuesday, when we will be indulging in semlor.

Our British heritage should really prompt us to fatten ourselves with pancakes today, but we do that so often otherwise that there’s no point in that. (And I just read that it is now considered too dangerous to arrange pancake races anyway, in these days of the nanny state. Maybe by next year pancakes will have been outlawed too?)

But semlor is a peculiar offshoot of he Swedish cuisine which is gulped down in hedonistic quantities in that country, and revered by expatriates in foreign lands as well. It is simply a wheat bun, filled with marzipan, the top cut off to form a lid under which generous amounts of whipped cream are squirted, and dusted with powdered sugar. It was traditionally served immersed in hot milk as well, but that seems to have waned over the years.

You can buy them everywhere in Sweden this time of the year, but in our case, we have to bake our own. Which brings us to the interesting hunt for marzipan in Brussels in February.

Last year, I didn’t think much of that as any problem. I remembered having seen huge stacks of marzipan blocks at our local Ikea, and just assumed that it would be available all year rund. We invited some Swedish friends, most of them in their first year here and in need of some consolation to get through this day of tradition, and I set out to get the ingredients at the last minute as always.

However, by the time I got around to it, the marzipan was all gone, being a seasonal thing for Christmas only. It was then I re-discovered how difficult it is to bake in Belgium.

I have come across that before. I’m used to baking my own birthday cakes and the like, but I have discovered that it is virtually impossible here in Belgium. Ingredients are notoriously hard to find, and cost a fortune of you do. Ready-made cakes, however, are reasonably priced, so we have got used to the plastic taste over the years and begun buying instead of baking. But of course, you can’t buy semlor.

It seemed that marzipan was not a commodity made available to the general public at all, once I started looking for it in the supermarkets. Which is very surprising because most of the gourmet chocolate houses, which Belgium is known for, display a wide variety or artisanal marzipan goodies as well. (Do the candy makers have secret contracts? Clandestine deliveries late at night?)

And at Christmas, there are no limits to marzipan-based sweets being sold, including a very popular one that is supposed to depict the baby Jesus made from pink marzipan.

I’ve always thought it to be seriously blasphemous to chew up a pink candy baby Jesus, and I was hoping not to have to resort to using a leftover stock of such items, but with the evening arriving and the guests drawing close or the other way, desperation was at a peak and rising.

Finally, I did find some other leftover Christmas candy and the problem was solved. This year, I have stocked up on marzipan from Ikea… and forgotten to invite any guests.

Oh bother.

Second Attempt

Time to brush the cobwebs off and get seriously started for the spring semester: this evening, I will attend a prolonged briefing on all things expected to happen in the EU during the forthcoming six months, a briefing estimated to go on for about three hours.

This excellent service is offered twice a year by the Swedish EU representation. In keeping with the Scandinavian tradition of openness and transparency, all their top experts in all policy fields line up to give an informal presentation to all Brussels correspondents for Swedish news media about what can be expected. Yielding notebooks full of almost legible notes, and at least a chance to be prepared for what will be coming up and who to talk to then. And a few good bites to eat as well (I’ll be back on that issue).

This time I might actually get there; last time I tried was a week ago. I got all prepared and ready and was about to go to the event, when I – for once – was wise enough to take a quick look at the calendar… only to discover that I was one full week early.

It’s nice to be on time and the Scandinavian mentality usually has little time for tardiness, but arriving a week in advance would have been a little over the top.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Growing up in an Anglo-Swedish family living in Belgium at least has one advantage that my children will eventually discover: You get Christmas presents over and over again. The only problem is that you don’t quite know from whom.

The Belgian tradition is for children to get their presents from Sinterklaas/St. Nicholas on December 6, and since the Sint, as he is commonly known, frequents the schools around that date, there is no way for us to try to ignore that tradition. (And it would be pretty harsh for the kids to come to school on that day and be asked by their friends “so what did you get from the Sint, then?”) So, already on December 5, our four- and six-year-olds put out a shoe each with carrots in them – for Sint’s horse – and awoke the morning after to find that the Sint had been there to put presents there in return.

Then, the Swedish Christmas starts officially on Christmas Eve, which is the day every Swedish child gets their presents – in fact, that is the main day of Christmas in Sweden. As we have that tradition firmly engraved in us, that is of course when we will have the next Christmas present flurry. More gifts.

The day after, Christmas Day, is traditionally the day when British children get presents in their stockings. Our kids have thus already put their stockings up, so it will be difficult to avoid even more presents then.

Well, if that sounds complicated, we haven’t got to the whole Santa business yet.

The Belgian Santa – the Sint – is not a merry figure from the North Pole; he is a skinny bishop arriving in a boat from Spain. The fact that he lives in sunny Spain rather than the freezing North isn’t so much the result of any modern-day timeshare condo programme, but rather a remnant from the years when Belgium was ruled by Spain and everything came from there. He is accomplished by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a jester-looking chap dressed in medieval clothing who is usually depicted as a blackface minstrel… a seriously politicaly incorrect caricature of an African man, probably in some way stemming from Moorish influences in Spain. He is the one who actually administrates the gift distribution; now there’s another interesting ground for debate over who’s the servant and who’s the master, by the way, but that’s beside the point.

However, the Swedish Santa – Jultomten – is a reformed and overgrown gnome, who lives alternatively at the North Pole or – more often – in Rovaniemi in Finland (although there have been some attempts to relocate him to Mora, Sweden). Not only does this bearded and obese character appear on Christmas Eve: he usually turns up in person, handing out Christmas presents from his sack, usually at the very moment when Dad has popped out to buy the newspaper. Jultomten has nothing in common with the Sint at all, except for being clad in red and handing out presents.

Then, the increasingly americanised version occuring in English-speaking countries, Santa Claus, of course lives at the North Pole, but sneaks down the chimney at night between Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 while the children are sleeping. to fill their stockings.

You’d think that our biggest problem is that we don’t have a chimney, but it gets worse still.

Putting all these things together means that we have to try to explain to our kids why this figure first appears in their school in full visibility, then sneaks in at home here at night, then changes clothes completely, gives Zwarte Piet a vacation in the middle of their busiest season, puts on 30-40 kilos in 18 days and relocates to the far North before turning up here again in full visibility, only to sneak in back here again the very night after to pop a few extra gifts down the kid’s socks that he could just as well have given to them the evening before.

The other day, we went to the local British store, where we buy all things English. There, the children had the chance of meeting Father Christmas, the fourth incarnation of this seasonal fiction, who is the English version of Santa (but ethnologically not entirely Santa Claus either).

“Is Zwarte Piet with him?” the Four-year-old asked expectantly.

Help.

The Princess And I

Friday’s press conference with the Swedish Prime and Foreign Ministers offered a rare opportunity to chat for a moment with the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria as well.

(I say that with the sort of feigned disinterest that befits a journalist who wants to appear as if he is constantly rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty of this world. The awkward truth is that I spend a lot of time in the privacy of my working chambers at home, but don’t tell anyone, will you).

Princess Victoria has been a virtually constant intern at the various levels of Swedish government, preparing for her forthcoming role as Head of State, and had just spent a week serving at the Swedish permanent representation to the EU. There, she kept a low profile, but was still admitted to the Summit as a minister, and allowed to sit in on even the most sensitive of deliberations.

She was not part of the concluding press conference, merely there as an observer. Consequently, she snuck in along one wall after the press conference had started, together with assorted members of the Swedish delgation, and sat on one of the chairs lined up along the wall around the large conference table around which we journalists and the ministers were distributed. It only so happened that she sat right behind me.

There I was, slumped belly-up in those extremely comfortable chairs designed for hours and hours of intra-community haggling, and as the full truth of the event dawned on me, a few TV cameras were already pointing my direction to get a glimpse of the Princess behind me. With me in the forefront, due to the camera angles likely making me appear even larger than in real life, and with my ‘deployed vehicle airbag’ prominently positioned.

In other words: those TV pictures would have showed the future Queen of Sweden only partly visible, peeping forward behind by my big fat tummy.

I checked – it seemed that the TV people were wise enough not to use those images. I call that professional discretion.

The Economist worries about whatever she was doing there, oblivious to the fact that she as Queen will be chairing the Permanent Foreign Comittee of the Swedish Parliament, and thus has every reason to be well-informed from the start. I don’t, because after the press conference, a few of us of course took the chance to exchange a few words with her. She seemed genuinely interested and started questioning us about how we work at these events, in a way that was either professionally faked or professionally inquisitive. While not being much of a royalist, I must confess to havng had a very positive impression of how seriously she seems to take her role.

However, I do regret missing the obvious question that we journalists shared (but didn’t ask her then either) last time she was a Government intern visiting Brussels: “So, how does the Ambassador take his coffee?”