Tag Archives: don’t take this too seriously

Brussels: a city of VIPs?

I’m not quite sure how I came to be reading the latest annual activity report of the Brussels Ixelles police force (Ixelles is a commune of Brussels, near the centre).

However I did come across some interesting statistics. The report lists the number of hours spent annually in providing police escorts for ‘Presidents, Ministers, and other VIPs’.

Those who live in Brussels will be familiar with the sight – and sound – of VIP convoys heading across town. One or more big black limousines is accompanied by a phalanx of police motorcycle outriders, who alternately zoom ahead or drop behind, blocking traffic at junctions with whistles and flashing lights, in order to let the VIPs pass unhindered through the rush-hour traffic.

They look pretty cool, and usually lend a certain panache and swagger to their maneuvers, aided by the inevitable black sunglasses. The constant convoys can be tiresome for those exposed to this on a daily basis. And it is on a daily basis: Brussels has an awful lot of VIPs.

One reason is the number of levels of government here.

A ‘Minister’ in Brussels can mean a federal (i.e. national) Minister, or a Minister in one of the three regional governments (Brussels-Capital, plus the Walloon Region and Flemish Region, both based in Brussels as well), or the French-speaking Community (the Dutch-speaking Community is merged with the Flemish Region, just to add to the confusion). Then of course there are the EU VIPs as well – national Ministers from all across Europe, here for EU meetings. Then there are the European Parliament VIPs and other dignatories. And of course the European Commission – each of the 26 Commissioners has their own driver and car to allow them to zoom up rue de la Loi (it would be much quicker by bike or metro of course). And not forgetting the diplomatic corps. There are huge embassies all along some of Brussels’ broad, tree-lined avenues, with delegations from around the world occupying huge, art nouveau mansions. There seems to be a rule that the smaller the country, the larger the embassy building, although it may just be that the bigger countries are a bit more discreet as a result of security concerns.

A ‘President’ can mean a Minister-President (regional level) a national President from another country who might be in town, or one of the European Presidents – the Commission, Council and Parliament each have their own President of course. Belgium is a monarchy, so no national President here, but  the royal family need to move around town too – the King’s official palace is an anarchist’s stone’s throw away from where I work in town.

I’m not sure who counts as a ‘VIP’ deserving of an official convoy, but there must be a lot of them too. Because in 2009 the Ixelles police spent no less than 6557 hours in escorting these convoys. Now that’s a lot. But by 2010 the figure had risen to 9499 – an increase of 44% in one year! Now that’s a lot of Ministers, Presidents and VIPs, not least because Belgium didn’t actually have a government in 2010.*

9499 hours per year already means that the Ixelles police are spending 26 hours per day providing VIP escorts, which is an impressive effort.

At the current rate of increase, I estimate that by 2020 the police will be spending nearly 250,000 hours per year on escorting VIPs. We have a lot of Ministers, Presidents and VIPs, but there’s no way they can keep up with the demand, even if they all spent 24 hours per day driving around Brussels. Obviously, this means that we are going to need a lot more VIPs, Ministers and Presidents.  In fact, we will all have to be VIPs, with our own outriders to clear the traffic every time we go out to the shops.

Of course, even the current level of police escorts does seem absurdly huge. And bear in mind, that these 9499 hours are just the figures for one of Brussels’ communes (there are 19 in total!). This is all part of a trend towards greater levels of security for our politicians… as they become more and more unloved.

There are two responses towards the increased security threats which our leaders face. One is to find more and more remote, and secure places to meet. Hence the retreats in difficult to reach, easy to control places like Davos or the UAE. But I think that Brussels’ response is much smarter. Rather than isolating the VIPs, here they are safely hidden in plain view. After all, with so many convoys of political nonentities patrolling the streets of Brussels, another black limousine attracts no attention at all from the casual passer-by. It could be a minor diplomat from a low-ranking country, or a mid-ranking official from one of the regional governments. Or it could be Francois Hollande, sweeping into Brussels to a high-level meeting with Merkel and whomever is Prime Minister of Greece this week. But either way, no one is going to notice.





* ok, not exactly true I know. We did have an acting government it’s just that it took over a year post-election to reach agreement between the parties about forming a new one.




Match the headlines: a European game about press and prejudice for all the family

Six newspapers from across the EU have recently been collaborating on European stories, which are then syndicated within their own titles at national level. The six are The Guardian (UK), Le Monde (France), El Pais (Spain), La Stampa (Italy), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), and Suddeutsche Zeitung (Germany).

I thought it would be interesting to look at one of their joint endeavours – an interview with Angela Merkel – comparing the articles to identify similarities and differences of presentation.

This is a few months old now, but although I emailed it to a few people at the time, I didn’t get around to blogging it until now.

The papers all shared a single interview with Merkel, then wrote separate articles. For amusement at the time I compared the headlines to see the spin they put on the same interview according to their political orientation and national perspective (thanks to Google translate in some cases – the translations are not official!).

See if you can match the headline to the publication / country (UK, DE, FR, ESP, POL, IT)…

Answers in the comments, no cheating!

1)  My vision is for a political union

2) There are no half-measures

3) Merkel erases their red lines

4) The future of Europe is political union

5) Love for Europe is not enough, we must work for it

6)  Merkel casts doubt on saving Greece from financial meltdown


A Brit-free Brussels?

The UK is now isolated within the EU, and commentators are openly speaking about the possibility of the British leaving entirely. Most of the articles about the implications of the UK leaving the EU look at the big issues: the economic, political, and legal implications. But let’s imagine the more local consequences: the impact on Brussels. What would life in ‘Euro-Brussels’ be like without the Brits?

Close your eyes, if you will, and let me take you on a journey into the future….

The year is 2022, and President Sean Connery is negotiating the accession of newly-independent Scotland with EU President Elio di Ruppo….. woah, sorry, too far forwards. Let’s rewind a little.

The year is 2018, and the UK has finally left the EU after several years of argument and recrimination. The UK tried to argue that it was the 26 other Member States who should leave, since they were the ones who wanted to change things. In the end the 26 did leave, but took the Institutions with them, renaming the EU into EU United in the process. (For UK readers, I stole this scenario from the MK Dons / Wimbledon FC takeover, my apologies.)

With no right to benefit from the free movement of labour, the remaining Brussels Brits needed to apply for visas… or leave. The British Embassy helped the last wave to leave on 31 December 2015. Hundreds queued at UK Rep clutching their tattered copies of the Treaty of Lisbon. They waited to be flown out by the American helicopters which landed in the middle of rond-pont Schuman. Then they took off, making their way back to the UK (or US Air Force East Atlantic Base, as Britain has been formally re-named).

But these pro-EU Brits found no safe harbour for their unpopular views back home. Many were forced to travel onwards, a vast diaspora of displaced Europhiles, roaming the world in search of a new utopia. Many of them settled on a huge cruise ship, purchased from another organisation. Now they sail around the Caribbean listening to lectures on the life of Jacques Delors. The boat is commanded by Admiral Cathy Ashton, who thus became responsible for the EU’s first real flagship initiative.

For those who stayed in Brussels, at first their native English gave them a marginal advantage and helped their visa applications. But all this was to change in 2017, when English ceased to be one of the official languages of the EU. The new EU United rules made it clear that there would be only one official language per Member State.

Malta chose Maltese rather than English. But it was more of a surprise when the Irish chose to make Mandarin their official language. However, as Taoiseach Xiang explained, this requirement was included in the fine print of the agreement signed in 2016, when China bought the Irish Republic during the ‘Euro brocante’.

The British citizens working for the European Commission fared badly as well. Once the UK had left, they managed to negotiate a right to keep their contracts, but they were rapidly consigned to the lowliest, least desirable parts of the Commission. Philip Lowe was made Director General for DG Maintenance Services, staffed mainly by the remaining Brits, who finally got the chance to clean up the Commission. Room by room.

British MEPs found themselves unemployed of course. Sharon Bowles used her experience as Chair of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee to secure a senior position within EU United’s monetary transition team, responsible for conversion to the new Euro-Yuan currency in 2017.

Nigel Farrage, however, found that the UK Independence Party’s success in getting Britain out of Europe left him in charge of a campaign with nowhere to go. He moved to national politics, but soon pronounced that the UK was too federal and centralised, and that local independence was the answer. Following a split in the Kensington & Chelsea Independence Party, he joined the Independence for Kensington campaign, finally ending up leading the Kensington Avenue (north end) Independence Party in its attempts to declare independence from Kensington Avenue (south end).

Meanwhile, Andrew Duff put his constitutional expertise to use, as an advisor to the drafting group for the new Belgian constitution. After only three years’ pain-staking work, the joint Flemish / Walloon group has just agreed on what colour chairs they should sit on, and is now negotiating whether the chairs should be bought from Ikea Zaventem or Ikea Arlon.

Place Luxembourg has changed too. Without the clientele of the boozy Brits, the bars have suffered, and have been forced to diversify, selling ‘I love Europe so much… that I bought it!’ T-shirts to wealthy Arab visitors.

Place de Londres has been renamed Martyrs’ Square in honour of those European politicians who were forced to eat English food during previous UK Presidency dinners.

And the statute of Field Marshal Montgomery next to Montgomery roundabout has been replaced with a bust of Mario Draghi, honoured for negotiating the ground-breaking sponsorship deal for the Emirates European Central Bank. Of course, the roundabout itself (a British invention) was replaced by the re-introduction of the priorite a droit rule at every junction in Europe, a decision directly responsible for the economic stimulus which lifted the EU out of recession during the so-called ‘bodyshop boom’.

And what of the British lobbyists? Well, with their backs to the wall, they mounted their most intensive lobbying campaign ever. They convinced the European Parliament that since lobbyists are the only ones who actually pay it any attention, throwing the vast number of British consultants out would jeopardise the egos of hundreds of attention-starved MEPs. The Parliament promptly voted a budget-line for the Supporters of the UK Union of Parliamentary Professionals (SUK-UPP), which funds British lobbyists to lurk within the Parliament’s bars and cafes, ensuring that an MEP need never worry about buying their own drinks.

Oh – but I forgot about the British journalists. What happens to them in the future? Well, the same as all the other professional journalists to be honest. What? Did you seriously think that there would still be newspapers in 2018 ?


How not to campaign in Brussels

New Europe have published a not-very-serious article I wrote about campaigning in Brussels. It started as a ‘how-to’ guide… but then it seemed a better idea to write a ‘how-not-to’ guide instead!

The link to the article on New Europ’s site seems to be dead, so here’s the full piece:

How not to Campaign in Brussels

Author: Simon Wilson

8 May 2011 – Issue : 934

For a town with so many campaigners, actual campaigning in Brussels seems to be very rare.  Well, perhaps I should say that effective campaigning is very rare, at least as I understand it.

Let’s try a definition.  Campaigning: to seek to create political change which supports your objectives. This is pretty difficult to achieve, which is why many organisations in Brussels adopt another definition. Campaigning: to spend money discussing why political change is hard to achieve.

Ok, so that’s a bit harsh (& I’ve not been immune to these failings myself), but I remain surprised by how few organisations – whether business or NGOs – adopt a reflective attitude towards their campaign activities.
The Internet is full of useful articles about how to campaign, so instead let’s focus on the top ten tips for how not to campaign in Brussels.

1.) Goals are over-rated.
Don’t bother with a specific goal, just a general sense of dissatisfaction or injustice will do. The vaguer, the better – that way you can avoid awkward questions later on about whether the campaign is a success (see point 10, below).

2.) Hire some staff
A campaign is nothing without a chance to employ new people on short-term contracts, to come in with no knowledge of the issues, people, or organisations involved. That way you can also get back to spending your valuable time on devising staff appraisal systems and coffee-making rotas. After all, campaigning is the most important function of your organisation, so make sure it’s the most junior staff who are doing it.  Remember, interns are basically free and can also fetch coffee.

3.) Write a position paper
Position papers are a wonderful way of re-visiting internal arguments and creating acrimonious splits over arcane points of no interest whatsoever to policy-makers. You can get your campaign off to a great start by producing a twelve page document which no-one will ever read but which will take six months of internal consultation to agree.

4.) Organise an event.
Events are great: they can fill your empty days with activity, and use up your campaign budget, whilst also sucking the life out of your campaign staff by ensuring that they spend their time choosing sandwich fillings and worrying about hotel bookings. Any event will do, just so long as you spend most of your campaign resources in bringing together some of your existing supporters for a discussion about how the rest of the world doesn’t understand you.
However, if you do have a choice, then go for an event in the European Parliament. You can then spend six months finding one MEP who already supports your objectives, get them to sponsor your event, wrestle with Parliamentary security protocols to get your supporters into the building, and then watch your MEP disappear 10 minutes after the event starts, leaving an audience of hungry Parliamentary interns, waiting for the free food and drink.

5.) Issue a press release
Four pages should be the minimum length for a press release – go for longer if your organisation has lots of members. If you didn’t manage to write a position paper, then a long press release can fulfill this function too.
Give it a good title, like ‘European decision-makers should take action now to obviate the inequities of the current policy-making framework by consulting fully with relevant stakeholders’. Then send it to all major news publications so that they can publish it in full the following day. Try not to link it to any issues which are currently newsworthy – that way you can be sure to set your own news agenda. Even if no-one else follows it. The best time to send press releases is 5.30 on a Friday. Don’t forget to follow up with a daily email to journalists, it makes them feel loved and involved. Every release should be preceded by and followed up with a phone call to each journalist.

6.) Campaign in public, don’t influence in private
Sure, you could meet the policy-makers before they take the decision, to explain your point of view. But it’s much better to wait until the decision is taken, then react with fury in public by publishing a letter in a major news publication. Or the European Voice.
Similarly, don’t worry about identifying who has the power, just focus on getting your message to as many people in Brussels as possible. The Economic and Social Committee is a great example. Ignore those who say its a pointless institution with no power, influence, or credibility. Meet with them, invite them to your events, send them your newsletters. Just remember: you are validating their lives, and giving importance to their days.

7.) Work to your own timeline
Don’t be bullied by the external time pressures of EU Institutional deadlines: you’re a campaigner, so work to your own time-frame. If it takes three months to hire a campaign coordinator, then plan to recruit three weeks before that crucial Parliamentary vote. If your position paper is only ready after the Council have taken their decision, then you can always re-frame it as a reaction to their meeting.  Similarly, Commission consultation periods are just indicative – feel free to send your response up to one year after the closing deadline.

8.) Communicate to your supporters
A campaigns newsletter is a good idea. The more frequent the better, particularly if the work of producing the newsletter actually stops you from doing the campaigning which you are reporting on, because you are too busy inventing success stories to placate your supporters.

9.) Devise a social media strategy
This is essential today. No self-respecting campaigner should ignore the opportunity to spend time and money in organising a dynamic, interactive, mobile-oriented social media campaign. Which is aimed at the active engagement of 50 year-old European Commission civil servants who still get their secretaries to print out their emails every morning.

10.) Life’s too short  to evaluate
OK, so you could end your campaign by evaluating whether it’s been successful. But luckily you didn’t set a clear goal in the first place, so that is not possible. Besides, evaluation will get in the way of planning your next campaign – which should have a substantially bigger budget of course, to reflect your new-found status as a campaign guru.

Simon Wilson is a Consultant…
and occasional campaigner http://www.mojoworking.eu

Babel fish and the European Parliament

For years many people have complained about the European Parliament’s huge translation bill – both for translating official documents, and for the simultaneous interpretation of meetings within the Parliament each year.


Most of those complaining have been monoglot Anglophones who continue to be baffled about why everyone doesn’t just give up on their own languages and speak English instead 😉   You can anticipate a very long wait before the 27 Member States of the European Union agree to reduce translation costs by accepting only a limited number of working languages. I remember working for an MEP around a dozen years ago on plans for a single Community patent, which was being delayed by the question of whether patents would have to be translated into every EU language. Twelve years later… the same issue is still blocking progress on the EU patent. And there is no sign that the interpretation costs in the EP are about to reduce either.

But where the Council of Ministers has failed, a far more powerful institution may be about to succeed – Google has the answer. Yes, today Google is launching the ‘conversation mode’ of its Google translate app for Android phones. This promises real-time translation of conversations between different languages. You speak into the microphone, Google translates your speech and reads the translation out loud. Whoever you are speaking to can respond and Google will perform the same trick, reversing the languages. For those familiar with the work of Douglas Adams, this could be the first steps towards the babelfish – a mythical tiny fish, inserted in the ear, which translates every language in the universe.

Very clever stuff – even if the app is only in ‘alpha’ for the moment, which means that it doesn’t really work, and can only translate Spanish and English so far. But the potential for these kind of applications (and it won’t necessarily be Google which makes the best implementation) is huge.

So what’s the EU link? I’m sure you’re expecting me to suggest that these devices could lead to the Parliament slashing its interpretation budgets and making lots of interpreters redundant? Well, that could happen, but not for a long while. No, the EU connection which interested me lies in the contribution which the European Parliament is making to the project, rather than the benefits which it will reap.

The Google app works by converting speech into text, translating the text, then rendering it back into spoken form. But how does it translate? Being a Google product, it relies upon search of course. It scours the internet to find verified translations of words and phrases, and indexes these in order to build up its dictionaries. And where would you find such a repository of verified translations? Well, the work of international institutions such as the UN and European Parliament can provide the answer. Without knowing it, the European Parliament has been laying the groundwork for Google translate for years. Hardly anyone may read some of those translations of EP declarations on Communicating Europe, but it turns out that they were part of a much bigger communication project: helping the world to speak to each other.

Google’s app is a prototype for the moment, so it probably can’t handle ordering a beer in Spanish. But I’m sure it would have no problem with this phrase, all thanks to the European Parliament:

El Parlamento Europeo, el Consejo y la Comisión Europea conceden una importancia primordial a mejorar la comunicación respecto de las cuestiones de la Unión Europea, de manera que los ciudadanos europeos puedan ejercer su derecho a participar en la vida democrática de la Unión, en la que las decisiones se toman en la forma más pública posible y del modo más próximo al ciudadano, en el respeto de los principios del pluralismo, la participación, la apertura y la transparencia.