Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Are these people real?

Kris Peeters is the Flemish Prime Minister. I don't really know, maybe there is also a Walloonie Prime Minister, and possibly even a German one as there is apparently a German speaking part of Belgium somewhere.  Yves Leterme is the national Prime Minister, although there isn't really a functioning government in Belgium, and decisions of import are currently being made by the King, Albert, which is a bit scary if you know what I mean. Incidentally, Leterme was appointed by the King. Is there any other European Nation where the monarch still actually appoints the head of the government?

Meneer Peters just tried to climb up Mt Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. He has failed, suffering from altitude sickness.

I promise you - I am not making this next bit up.....

Peters had tried to climb the highest mountain in the Andes - with 18 asthma patients.

It gets better.... while the PM is recovering, the asthma patients are still trying at this time to reach the summit. I wish them well!

The PM has attracted some criticism at home for this stunt, as he was supposed to attend a crucial budgetary debate in one of Belgium's numerous parliaments. One would ordinarily assume that a Prime Minister would turn up for such an event, but as I have noted before, this is no ordinary capital city!

Thanks to Le Soir For This One!

I managed to get the panzer stuck in the snow for 3 nights. You wouldn't ordinarily expect that if you live in the centre of a capital city, but this, of course, is no ordinary capital city! Eventually, I took an axe to the ice to break it up and cut out a path to a clear road. It was great fun to watch, I'm sure, but not so much fun to actually do it. Still, I suppose it killed three hours, when I could have otherwise been doing.... well, anything really

There was a terrific story in Le Soir, which is a Belgian daily newspaper. It explained why the Belgian motorways were all blocked whilst France and the other Benelux superpowers managed to keep the traffic flowing.

A general decision had been taken to pull all vehicles over 7.5 tons off of the road when the snow first hit hard. The Belgian police took this to mean literally all vehicles over 7.5 tons, and promptly ordered the gritters and snow ploughs off the roads.

Is there any other country in Europe, I wonder, where such stupidity reigns supreme?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Things Go Better With Coke...

I was catching a flight from Brussels airport earlier this year, when I witnessed an altercation between a visibly anxious passenger and a member of staff. Obviously flustered herself, the staff member shouted at the passenger "We can't help you, because there are no staff working here anymore". It is true, there have been swingeing job cuts at the airport.

But it seems that some people are doing well there. It seems that the baggage handlers have gone into the drugs business, according to a recent report.

Its a good job they are sub-contracting for Colombian drug dealers and not Al Queeda. Its a bit disturbing to note that an airport official admitted to the lack of security checks on the staff...

Something You Don't Often See.....

I found myself heading, somewhat cautiously, into Brussels on the motorway from Zaventum - Brussels Airport - which is closed because they have no de-icer for the aircraft (its true).

I was emerging from a tunnel which leads onto Brussels biggest roundabout, which is called "Square" Montgomery (this is also true - you don't need to make stuff up about this place). Suddenly the traffic came to a halt, and Belgians were emerging from their cars in a state of what passes for anxiety here. So I left the warmth of my car to see what all the commotion was about.

Three cars ahead of me, a fecking great big blue skip was blocking both lanes. It had, literally, fallen off the back of a lorry. Thank God nobody was injured or worse.

It took some time for the police to organise another lorry to come and take it away.

I wonder if the total idiot responsible for this even noticed that the skip was missing when he arrived at his destination - stupidity is taken to new dimensions in this town, it really is.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Maybe They Should Stick To Goats And Donkeys...

The travelling circus that is the European Parliament decamped to Strasbourg this week.

I happen to love Strasbourg, so it is not such a problem for me, but it is a heck of a drive each month, and a bit of a problem finding hotel rooms sometimes.

The journey back was one of those nightmares we get each year, as this whole adventure involves contact with two mountain ranges - the Voges and the Ardennes. And Oh Boy can it snow there!

Driving through France is fine, and in Luxembourg, when the snow really hit on Thursday, I was impressed by the way they cleared the snow almost before it landed, and then took swift action to take all the lorries off the road. If only it were always so.

Then I crossed the border into Belgium. No snowploughs, no salting, just snowdrifts and a 20mph drive across the ice.  Every so often there would be a car crashed or abandoned - always with Belgian plates - and it was a nasty and long slog. Driving in Belgium is always an unpleasant experience, but this was one of the worst.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Did Putin order the murder of Alexander Litvinenko?

Federal Law 153-FZ appears to be the smoking gun....
Amongst the controversial issues raised as a result of recent Wikileaks activity is the matter of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen and former KGB officer, in London in November 2006. Andrei Lugovoi, himself closely linked with the KGB, is wanted by British police in connection with the murder. He currently sits as a deputy in the Russian Parliament as a member of the fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democrat Party". It should be noted that Zhirinovsky himself was apparently rehabilitated during the Putin Presidency, and was allowed to co-sponsor important legislation on gas exports in 2006.

According to information released by Wikileaks, Russian President Vladimir Putin "may have" known about the murder plot before it took place.

Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of state, has stated that he doubts that “rogue security elements” could operate in the UK “without Putin’s knowledge”.

Let us be absolutely clear about this: Russian Federal Law 153-FZ - passed in 2006 - states that "The special assignment units of the Federal Security Service may be used , by a decision of the President of the Russian Federation, against the terrorists and (or) their bases, located beyond the territory of the Russian Federation..."

153-FZ defines as "terrorists" or "extremists" any critics of the state, or of the Russian leadership.

The law is unambiguous: any operation such as that to liquidate Alexander Litvinenko could only have taken place with the prior authorisation of President Putin.

Lugovoi himself has spoken openly in the Spanish press about his comfort with the murder, actually stating that he "would have given the order himself", although the official line remains that he had no involvement.

During the past week, with elections looming in Belarus, Parliamentarians and journalists in Brussels met with activists from the democratic opposition who have been subjected to intimidation, and summary arrest - known in Belarus as "administrative arrest". We should not kid ourselves that democracy has already come to all of Europe - it clearly hasn't.

In 2012 Russians will go to the polls, and choose their president. Europe should prepare itself for the return of Vladimir Putin, and possibly for the greatest challenge to democracy since the fall of the wall.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Democracy Doesn't Come Cheap!

I was lucky to have the chance to attend a meeting this week with Vytautas Landsbergis, the former president of Lithuania, and now a Member of the European Parliament. Landsbergis is widely considered to be one of the key figures in the fall of communism in Europe. He won my admiration when the Parliament debated an EU-wide ban on Nazi regalia, and he insisted that the ban be extended to the Hammer & Sickle - "The Communist dictatorships no less than the Nazi ones are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people" he said at the time. The Russians were not amused, nor were the multitude of "former" communists in the Parliament!

Lithuania was the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union, and Landsbergis was lucky to escape with his life when things turned nasty.

I remember one British MEP declaring that the Baltic states - which entered the EU in 2004 - "know little about democracy". He himself apparently knew little about history - but then the oik in question never did finish his education!

Also present at the meeting was a delightful young gentleman whose name I will not reveal. A member of the Belorussian Popular Front, he has been imprisoned more than once after his "administrative arrest" for  opposing the government of Lukashenko. Such arrest means no charges, no trial, just 5 - 20 days in a filthy prison cell. As Belarus prepares for another general election he expects further harrassment. He is a very brave young man.

I took part in a peaceful picket outside a police station in Minsk myself, back in the days when my politics were a wee bit more confrontational. The level of intimidation was quite overwhelming, although I am pleased to say there was no violence. I look forward to the day - which I am convinced will come very soon - when Belarus enjoys the same freedoms that we all take for granted. Its a truly beautiful country, it deserves better.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Psssst... Wanna buy a World Cup final?

I watched the announcement of who would host the 2018 and 2022 world cups in a sports bar I tend to frequent rather too frequently. The hope was, of course, that England would get the 2018 tournament, although I picked up at the weekend the rumour that the decision had already gone Russia's way. Certainly the staff of the Russian embassy were celebrating in Brussels on Saturday night.

I noticed a Tory MEP present. This was rather odd, as the chap in question never usually deems to be seen socialising with the proletariat, preferring instead to stick to the comfort of the MEPs facilities.

Ah.... but there were TV cameras present!! This is normal....

West Midlands MEP Nikki Sinclaire was also there - she is a big soccer fan and often lunches at the establishment in question - and so she ended up getting more attention from the tv crew than our Tory friend, which left me grinning in satisfaction. The "big three" parties cannot bear it when smaller parties or independent MEPs like Nikki get media attention.

Russia and Qatar.... hmmm.... So this decision involved two cash rich states both with reputations for bribery and corruption, and FIFA, which has hardly been untouched by scandal.

So how much exactly were the winning bids, I wonder?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Is Robert Mugabwe Belgian?

Belgian elegance...
In London we have "rush hour", here in Brussels its more of a "shuffle time", especially on the Metro.

I actually like the Brussels metro - being a bit "green" I try to use public transport as much as I can, and with this city being about the size of Croydon it is easy to get about quickly. But mornings are awful, due to the overcrowding.

Belgian men smell of beer in the mornings, and the chicks smell of stale tobacco and strange perfume. Try standing in a carriage with 150 of them and see how you feel about that. But the worst thing is the depressing Belgian dress sense. Various shades of drab, set off nicely with a little tuft of hair growing from the bottom lip. And thats just the women....

If you want eye candy on the way to work in the mornings, I recommend London in springtime, Moscow in the winter, and Paris anytime. In this respect, Brussels does not work for me at all.

So I was delighted to attend a fashion show last night, hosted by the EU Belarus Business Chamber at a beautiful chateau on the outskirts of the city. I never paid attention to such things before, but this was great!

I am quite a fan of Belarus - its a terrific place, and Minsk is one of the "must see" cities. But what puzzles me is how an entire nation can be held back by one man - President Lukashenko. The moment he is gone, Belarus will be allowed to rejoin the rest of the world, but still he hangs on, like a European version of Robert Mugabwe, which brings us back to the subject of unpleasant people with dodgy facial hair.

Taken to the cleaners.....

Dry Cleaning - Belgian style!
Belgians, I was once told, can neither clean anything nor fix anything. And so it was with some trepidation that I took the panzer in for repairs to the steering lock. As I write this I have yet to find time to go and collect it - or perhaps I am just putting off the almost inevitable bad news....

I mention this because I am getting depressed about the amount of suits in my wardrobe that need dry-cleaning. This is a bit of a problem here. There appear to be two systems in Europe:

1. The UK system. Drop off suit, then later in the day pop in, pay £6, then take the nice clean suit home.

2. The Belgian syatem. Drop off suit, then 1 week later pop in, pay €18, then stare in dismay at the spots and marks that have appeared all over the once nice suit.

A couple of months ago I collected a suit from the dry-cleaners in the European Parliament. The lady took my money, then promptly dropped my suit on the floor. "Its ok" she said as she wiped dust off the jacket "it didn't hit really the floor".

I simply cannot muster the will power needed to inflict more of this on myself.