Monday, 19 December 2011

Drunk, or just stupid?

A friend thankfully survived a horrific car crash two weeks ago with minor injuries. Sitting at a red traffic light near to Zaventum airport, a drunk ploughed into the back of his car at 130kph. His car pretty much disintegrated.

There is no social stigma attached to drink-driving in Belgium, and it is a huge problem. Even as a pedestrian I have had a couple of terrifying moments here. But it is not just drink - Belgian drivers are, generally, ignorant, selfish, and of dubious competence. Coupled with roads that the Congolese would be ashamed of, its a dangerous mix.

Driving back from France a few days ago we encountered seriously heavy rain. Most Belgian motorways are made of concrete, and it would appear that no thought at all was given to surface water drainage when they were 'designed'. Potholes abound, and the motorway lights don't, for the most part, work.

In these conditions I found myself about 10 yards behind a transit van, at about 80kph, a lorry to my right throwing up water, and visibility virtually nil. Its not nice, I can assure you.

And so then I encountered an example of Belgian driving at its most typical. The frantic flashing of lights behind me told me that one of these morons desperately needed to get past me in a hurry. Now there is nothing I enjoy more than having some insignificant little gobshite trying to intimidate me. 'Being intimidated' is not something I do well, and so I treated him with the contempt he deserved and flicked up my mirror. It was neither the time or place for slowing him down further and inviting him to join me on the hard shoulder for a knuckle sandwich.

When the van and I cleared the lorry, needless to say our tailgater promptly overtook us on the inside before disappearing in a cloud of spray.

Belgium has a higher rate of road fatalities per capita than even Portugal - and anybody who has driven on the motorways there will know how special an experience that can be. Eastern European countries also fare badly, but it is interesting to note which are the countries with the lowest rates - the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. I probably do not need to speculate on why that might be.

The lowest of all fatality rates is in Malta. It is hard to crash a donkey, I guess.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Graham Booth

I was genuinely saddened to learn of the passing of the former South West MEP Graham Booth this week.

I shared offices with Graham in Brussels for about 3 years, I always enjoyed his company, and especially his politically incorrect sense of humour. He was very popular with staff, and I well remember the afternoon when we held a surprise birthday party for him. In those days we were a close-knit team, and there was a real sense of comraderie which I miss.

We didn't always see eye to eye - Graham was an avowed climate change denier, his position being based on a CSE in astronomy. I loved to wind him up on the subject, but his position was unshakable.

When the Royal British Legion in Brussels was struggling with membership and calling for numbers in order to keep the branch open, Graham was one of the first two MEPs to sign up, the other being Tom Wise.

Sadly, things went wrong during his final months in Brussels. I was disappointed to receive a phone call from a UKIP branch official in the South West informing me that Graham was calling around telling everybody that I and two other staffers were MI5 agents. I don't hold it against him, I know exactly from where these bilious lies emanated.

Graham put a lot into UKIP, in financial terms and also in terms of his personal time and energy. He was absolutely committed to the cause of British independence. His retirement was cut short, but knowing Graham, I suspect he enjoyed every minute of it!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

My Own Personal Gulag.

I had an hour to kill before a meeting so I took a stroll along Chausee de Wavre in search of a bit of breakfast. This is not easy to find in Brussels, as these guys have no idea of what a real breakfast is.

I dream of sitting down at the Lion's Den cafe, just around the corner from the Den in Bermondsey. I love the bustle, the light-hearted banter, the endless speculation about David Beckham's left foot - and the bacon and eggs go down a treat too.

In Brussels it is different. Stunted men, dressed in mustard coloured suits and sporting strange facial hair, sit silently staring at the wall. There is no banter here. Breakfast consists of various forms of bread, none of which I like. Croissants are, I have to say, ghastly.

Anyway, needing a bite, I bought a pain saucisse. This slightly resembles a sausage roll. It can be eaten cold, which is awful as these things are very greasy. Having it hot means microwaved so that the pastry goes all soggy. Either way, it is not nice. I had one anyway and threw half of it away and wished I were back in the real world.

So next time you sit down to a good fry-up, think of me.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Space, the final Lebensraum

Strasbourg is a city that changes ownership from time to time, and this is reflected in the TV channels available in its hotels. There is a mix of French and German language programmes.

I was delighted last night, whilst sitting in my room ruining my diet with a Chicken Tikka Pizza, to find an old episode of Star Trek dubbed into German.

Spock, in German, is utterly convincing. He is a sinister looking character to say the least, and so the accent suits him. All that is missing is the duelling scar.

My German is even worse than my French, so I have trouble following most of it, but I think they changed the script to suit German tastes. I may have made some errors, but I think it went like this:

Chekov: "Mein Kapitain, I have an unidentified craft on the port beam".

Kirk: "Assume an attacking position now, or I will have you shot".

Spock: "Kapitain, Sulu and Uhura are missing from their posts!"

Kirk: "They are not very well..."

Spock: "Why, what is wrong with them?"

Kirk: "I had them gassed, they are untermensch."

Chekov (swallowing loudly): "Kapitain, my mother may be Russian, but I promise you, my 18 fathers were all German soldiers."

(Image of unidentified craft now looms onto the screen)

Spock: "Achtung, Spitfire!"

Kirk: "We are done for......"

Spock:"Gott in Himmel, why do we Germans always lose?"

Kirk: "That was nothing to do with us Germans, it was the Nazis what done it."

Monday, 17 October 2011

Otis Redding and James Brown, no less....

I noticed a poster yesterday, advertising a show at the Cirque royale on December 18th. It is to be a James Brown / Otis Redding tribute gig. According to the poster they are "Les Rois du Soul". Surely Brown is the Godfather of soul?

Redding, on the other hand - and I am big fan - was more than just a soul singer. I know that aficionados will take offence at this, but I regard soul as being a mere sub-genre of R n B, and I think Redding was a true giant of R n B. He was also a great icon for the Mods, both in the 60s and during their late 70s reincarnation.

What I find really interesting about this poster is that it announced that no less than 10 singers will be performing the songs of the two great men. One of them will be Johnny Logan. That's right, the Irish Eurovision guy.

I know that Irish performers are real pros, but how is this going to work?

Is he going to do Brown, Redding, or both?

On the poster, the picture of Brown is not one of his best - actually he looks like he himself is doing a tribute gig - a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

Of course, in an ideal world Logan will black up a la Jolson, but we all know that ain't gonna happen. I saw the Black and White Minstrels once. Not all of them, but a sort of chamber version. They were on the bill with Tommy Cooper, and it was a great show.

I will probably go along on the 18th, partly out of curiosity, although at the moment I am a bit more concerned with getting a ticket to see Wanda Jackson next week. Wanda is not as young as she once was, but I guess none of us are. She still does a great show though.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Energy Diplomacy

Jimmy Carter has been in the parliament this week, but sadly I missed him. I'm told he looks remarkably well.

One person I did not miss was Dr Stanislav Zhinin, a Moscow based expert on energy policy, and on energy diplomacy. He discussed the tree different approaches to energy diplomacy - US policy is driven by the energy companies themselves, the EU approach he described with a wry grin as "conceptual", whilst Russia, he admitted, might be perceived as having a politically led approach.

I was present in 2009 when Gazprom adopted an 'empty chair' approach to negotiations with the EU over the Ukrainian shut-offs. Whilst MEPs, the press corps, and half the Ukrainian government crammed themselves into a meeting room and ranted, Alexy Miller simply didn't show up. The whole thing was brilliantly choreographed by the Russians, and the humiliation of Ukraine was a significant factor in the replacement of the Yukoshenko government with the Kremlin's puppet Yanukovych.

Without a common energy policy, the EU will always lose out to the Russians. But this needs to be not an EU common policy, but one based on international treaty, and which includes states such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkey. This would have the effect of pulling up standards of business practice in certain countries, whilst greatly reducing the vulnerability of peripheral states. It would also do to Russia what they seek to do to all their customers - it would marginalise them.

But don't hold your breath on this one....

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Apropos of nothing -Something from Kipling that I just might happen to empathise with...

The dark eleventh hour

Draws on and sees us sold

To every evil power

We fought against of old -

Rebellion, rapine, hate,

Oppression, wrong and greed

Are loosed to rule our fate

By England's art and deed.

The faith in which we stand,

The laws we made and guard,

Our honour, lives, and land

Are given for reward

To murder done by night

To treason taught by day,

To folly, sloth, and spite,

And we are thrust away.

The blood our fathers spilt,

Our love, our toils, our pains

Are counted us for guilt

And only bind our chains -

Before an Empire's eyes

The traitor claims his price.

What need of further lies?

We are the sacrifice.

We know the war prepared

On ever peaceful home

We know the hells prepared

For such as serve not Rome

The terror, threats, and bread

In market, hearth, and field -

We know, when all is said,

We perish if we yield.

Believe we dare not boast,

Believe we dare not fear:

We stand to pay the cost

In all that men hold dear.

What answer from the North?

One Law, One Land, One Throne!

If England drives us forth

We shall not fall alone.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Abandoning the Commonwealth...

Britain's leading position in international trade was built primarily on networks of private businesses. It was not until the 1930s that these began to be replaced by governmental networks. Traditional networks, and here we can include the Commonwealth, were erode during the 1950s and the 1960s. It was also at this time that we began to see the end of the London Docks as a major hub for global trade. Rotterdam has replaced London.

Politically, the tide also turned against the Commonwealth. The failed adventure in Suez in 1956, (which involved the invasion of a former Commonwealth state), brought into question Britain's position as a leading world power. Then when the Macmillan government ceased investing in traditional partnerships, and began to move towards Europe, the African dominions were largely abandoned economically and forced to develop new links and trading blocs.

Canada, which had the second largest economy in the Commonwealth, was already more closely tied with the US in economic terms. Australia, which tried to turn to London for much needed development aid after the Second World War had been refused and instead took a loan from the World Bank of $100 million in 1950. This was due to the inability of Britain to resume its place on the world stage as a major capital exporter. Efforts to persuade Britain to invest in other development projects met with little success - the money was simply not there - and so commonwealth states were forced to turn to the US. Canada had become a significant capital exporter, although its investments were mainly in the US. Britain's inability to supply capital was replaced by the 1960s with unwillingness. Britain was rapidly losing face, and the Commonwealth states were rapidly developing new networks.

Harold Wilson made some half-hearted attempts to restore the trade networks with the Commonwealth, but these were unsuccessful. When Macmillan began the process of applying for EEC membership, he was forced to scrap Commonwealth food preferences in favour of the Common Agricultural Policy. (Britain had promised that in negotiations with the EEC, Commonwealth food preferences would remain in place, but did not deliver on the promise). Nations that depended on exporting to the UK, such as New Zealand, were faced with losing their markets. In agricultural exports, as in finance, the Commonwealth states were forced to develop new networks.

Some minimal compensation was obtained for those countries that lost their markets when we did eventually join the EEC, and it is interesting to note that some of them, including New Zealand, are to be compensated for loss of trade as a result of Romanian and Bulgarian accession.

Does the Commonwealth need us?

Too often, when people talk about turning to the Commonwealth, they really mean 'English speaking white people'. When Nigel Farage, in answer to President Barroso's state of the union address today, spoke about the Commonwealth as our "Kith & Kin", I wonder exactly how he is related to the people of Rwanda, Pakistan, Nigeria, Lesotho, Tonga etc.

The Canadian economy is now largely integrated with that of the US, and the country is a member of NAFTA. Australia is emerging fast, and the Australia - Japan Free Trade Agreement is probably far more interesting to them than an attempted rapprochement with a tired and disoriented country on the other side of the world. Those who long for the days of the old Commonwealth are missing one vital fact - the partners we abandoned in the middle of the last century want to live in the future, not the past. They simply don't need us!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Collapse of the Eurozone?

A very interesting meeting today at which the possibility of the breakup of the Eurozone was discussed.

There are a number of factors, each rather serious, that have combined to make a crisis appear inevitible. Lack of agreement on the European Stabilisation Fund (ESF) that means it is still not operational, uncertainty even at this stage as to the size of the fund, the state of public´finances, and of European banks.

We learned that the 3 largest American banks have a combined debt equal to 35% of US GDP. The 3 largest French banks have a combined debt of 250% of GDP. France is also likely to see its triple A rating downgraded in coming weeks.

Across Europe the picture looks grim. Unemployment is rising in Belgium against a backdrop of a deficit of around 100% of GDP. Unemployment in Spain is at 22%.

No nation has ever recovered from such a crisis as Greece now faces without substantial devaluation of its currency. But Greece cannot do that, as it is in the Eurozone.

Hopes are being pinned on the issue of Eurobonds - but wait for this one - Eurobonds are illegal under German constitutional law, and so the economic driver cannot touch them. 80% of Germans now oppose Merkel's policies on supporting the Eurozone, and the Bundesbank is openly criticising the European central Bank and EU policy.

Four options appear to be open to the Eurozone. To sit back and take more of the same, fighting crisis after crisis until the money runs out. Greater political union. Exit of the weaker economies. Exit  of the stronger economies. There are more cons than pros to each of these options, and it is hard to see how any of them could overcome their inherent problems.

These are interesting times, and whichever way one looks at it, it is hard to see a way forward for the Eurozone.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cartwright to the Rescue! The last thing a woman needs....

For a 6 year old boy, scrumping apples for the purpose of feeding goats is a bit of a hoot. And so yesterday George and I headed for the Maximillian Park, a city farm in the centre of Brussels.

When we arrived it was closing. This was 7 hours earlier than the advertised time, but in Brussels this is quite unremarkable. Nobody here can do a full day's work, which explains why the country is so poor. George was a bit disappointed, so we visited a shop where I bought him a lolly. This was a bit of an unusual lolly in that it came with a large pair of joke lips attached. I was thinking of getting one for myself, but instead I settled on a can of Saudi Arabian Vimto.

Leaving the shop, we passed the gates of the farm, and this is where it gets good. One would assume that before closing for the day the staff might actually check that there was nobody still on the premises. But remember - this is Brussels.

And so we found a distraught young woman and an equally distraught child trying to get out of the farm. We went to help.

You really have to see this from the perspective of the mother. She is trapped, with a girl who I would guess was about 4 years old, surrounded by goats and sheep, and it is starting to rain. All is lost - but wait - here comes help! At this moment, probably the last thing a lady in distress needs is a bloke in a lurid Hawaiian shirt and a Stetson hat, accompanied by a 6 year old Mick Jagger impersonator. At this point both mother and daughter began to weep.

We were able to give her the telephone number posted outside the farm for emergencies.She got through to a voicemail message that informed her that Jean-Luc would be on holiday until August 25th.

It is very important at such times not to laugh. Sadly I let the side down a bit at this point.

Then her family began to arrive.The lady, who I was starting to get rather fond of, appears to be descended from what I can only decribe as a line of pantomime Arabs. Only Peter Ustinov was missing from the cast now, and even George was starting to realise that we were living through moments that could never possibly have been planned better, and that were unlikely ever to be repeated.

Then the wailing started. To be fair it was not much of a wail, and it was only one lady, but to me it signified the pinnacle of a marvellous afternoon's entertainment. I suggested that it might be appropriate to call the police, at which point two shifty looking guys vanished at great speed.

Eventually George and I said goodbye to our friends. Fortunately the rain passed in minutes, and I hope they managed to escape. I may pass by later today just to see....

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Alternative Reality Party?

A study by the University of Cardiff has revealed that 82% of Britons are in favour of wind energy. The Danish island of Samsø takes 100% of its elecricity from wind power, and now exports energy to the mainland, and guess what - the lights don't go out when the wind stops blowing! Last year, wind generated elecricity in Spain peaked briefly at 52% of total national demand. UKIP, however, has a different take on all this. A few years ago an e-mail was circulated by a UKIP member stating that it takes a single wind turbine 2 years to generate enough electricity to boil a kettle. Most famously, a UKIP researcher once wrote that wind turbines adversely affect the rotation of the Earth.

UKIP is now in danger of becoming the 'Alternative Reality' party.

The party's Head of Policy is one Christopher Monckton, a man who has recently been chastised for pretending to be a member of the House of Lords. Prior to the Copenhagen conference he claimed to have seen a secret treaty that would be signed by world leaders handing over power to a new world government. That this failed to happen, is something he has yet to address. His testimony to the US Congress on climate change was greeted with derision, and he was again humiliated over his claim to be a member of the House of Lords.

On the day the eurosceptic MEP Derk-jan Eppink presented his excellent book 'Bonfire of Bureaucracy in Europe' in Brussels, UKIP MEPs were supporting the launch of a book about the Bilderburg group. Personally, I am not particularly worried about the activities of an NGO, but some seem to think that this group is planning world domination. Another one of those 'secret governments'?

Society needs dissent. Dissent is good for debate, and it is good for democratic integrity, as it keeps the centre ground fluid. A stagnant polity is vulnerable in terms of the strength of its democratic process. Dissenters come in two types - 'disclosers', who are there to challenge the system and ensure transparency, and 'contrarians', who serve little purpose at all. UKIP now falls into the latter category, with all received wisdom seemingly being rejected on no firm basis whatsoever. This is a great shame, as UKIP made a huge contribution by being the catalyst and rallying point for many thousands of people who felt that their voices were not being heard, or that their concerns about the EU were not being taken seriously. Good people who had grown disillusioned with the established parties got out onto the streets, delivered leaflets, challenged their MPs, and stood in elections they knew they could never win. The contribution of UKIP to British politics has been immense - that makes it even sadder to see what the party has now become.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A Belgian Bailout?

The Belgian parliament has been recalled to discuss the country's deepening financial crisis, and the Financial Services Authority (FSA) in the UK has asked British banks to give full details of their exposure to Belgian debt.

The Belgian stock market index has fallen to a two year low, and two weeks ago €7 billion was wiped off the value of shares in a single day. Dexia Bank reported a loss of € 4billion in the second quarter of this year, more than the bank is actually worth (3.2 billion).

Against this background, the Belgian government is uncertain as to who should draw up the budget for 2012!

The whispers are that Belgium will be seeking a bail-out before the end of the year.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A sad sight.....

In Rotherhithe, at Surrey Docks, we have a terrific little farm where kids can go and interact with the animals. They get to muck out stables, collect eggs, milk cows etc. There is a little café and a working blacksmith - its a great resource.

So I thought I would take George to Brussels' equivilant, the Maximillian Park, just by Yser metro station. It is not quite the same.

I'm not sure what educational benefit there is in having 3 sheep surrounded by an electric fence, and the donkeys looked somewhat distressed to me. One of the goats was a bit lively, and feeding it an apple we scrumped from a nearby tree was the sum total of the interaction that was possible.

Possibly the saddest sight of all was what I can only describe as a hump-backed rabbit. It was either crossbred with a camel, or it had a cyst on it's back that must account for 20% of it's body weight.

The staff all appeared bored and indifferent, and I suspect they may not have much training in the animal field.

Its not often I would say this, but I do agree with the legislation that decrees that the primary function of a zoo should be education. The Maximillian Park appears to offer some courses in the Summertime, but I am not sure how interesting they may be given the dilapidated state of the premises and the livestock. When this legislation first became binding, the future looked bleak for Battersea Park zoo, until donors stepped in and saved the day. Its a shame that in Brussels, where the legislation emanated from, they are not so quick to apply the same standards that are demanded of the other member states.

Brussels has a bad record when it comes to zoos. Park Leopold used to be the city zoo, and it is now chiefly remembered for the appalling treatment of its elephant. Antwerp zoo, however, is very good and always well worth a visit.

If you do visit Maximillian park, ignore the bit on the website about it being open until 10pm during the summer - we were asked to leave at 4.50 pm because they were closing.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

100,000 signatures. Now we want our say!

At last, after a lot of hard work Nikki Sinclaire has amassed the 100,000 signatures that should prompt a debate on our continued membership of the EU in the House of Commons. Of course, Cameron is already trying to renege on his election promise, but that comes as no surprise to anybody. His 'Cast Iron Guarantee' of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty turned out to be nothing more than rhetoric - it appears that Mr Cameron's word is worth little - as he dropped that promise at the earliest opportunity.

So what does this mean?

Nikki also sponsored a YouGov poll at the weekend, in which 52% of respondents said that they would vote to leave the EU. There is clearly a lot of strong feeling about this, and the government is morally, if not legally, bound to heed the will of the majority. The 100,000 signatories do include a lot of UKIP members, but they also include those of other parties, including at least one senior Tory peer. Most of the signatories, however, signed up in the streets of towns and cities up and down the UK, online, or through the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, or the many local newspapers that ran ads for the campaign.

The important thing now is not to allow the issue to be placed in a box. The establishment does have a convenient box, marked 'UKIP', in which it can deposit troublesome issues. Note how within the last week or so two issues have generated a great deal of debate - this referendum campaign and a similar one run by the Daily Express - and the HS2 high speed rail link. The UKIP leadership has never supported Nikki's campaign, and seems, according to a leaked e-mail from the leader's office, not to have a great deal of faith in referenda. UKIP also supported the idea of a high speed link in it's last manifesto. Now both issues are at the forefront, up to the plate comes Nigel Farage, who throws his 'weight' behind the Express campaign, and condemns HS2 without a thought for his own manifesto. Bingo - both issues are now consigned to the box marked 'UKIP', where they can be dismissed as peripheral.

We must not allow this to happen. This is the single most important political issue of the day. And here I am not actually referring to membership of the EU - as important as that is - but to the right of the people to expect that politicians will honour their pre-election promises. British politicians rightly criticised the EU for refusing to recognise the French, Dutch and Irish no votes on Nice, the Constitution, and Lisbon. It appears, however, that Mr Cameron has learned a lot from the Commission approach to democratic obligation.

The EU is, beleive it or not, struggling to get to grips with its own 'democratic deficit', and to address it, although it has some funny ways of going about it. In terms of democratic integrity it can never tick all the boxes and satisfy all its member states, as I would argue that it can never be a classical Liberal Democracy, which is the only form of democracy acceptable to we Brits. But while we criticise the EU, it is sad to note that our own country is slipping somewhat in its standards.

Let there be more petitions, lets keep piling them up on the Speaker's chair, and waving them outside the gates of Downing Street. Perhaps the British people are waking up at last!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Brussels - it's a Pane!

As I made my way to work through the grey chilliness of a Belgian summer this morning, I stopped to watch a young lady trying to take the vertical measurement of a window. I would guess the height of the window at slightly over 20 feet. She was using a normal reel type tape measure, totally unsuited for the task. Of course it buckled as soon as she got it up more than about 4 feet above her hand. It was, I mused, somehat akin to trying to put cooked spaghetti up a cat's arse.

After a while, she gave up, looked around her, and then wrote something on a piece of paper and shuffled away. This large window was covered with a semi-transparent image, so I guess she was measuring it for a replacement.

I lived in Brussels long enough to know what will happen next.

The figures, which she made up, will be passed to a designer (in about 3 months). Sometime in early 2012, a guy will arrive with a wrongly sized vinyl image, which will have cost the taxpayer several grand (yes, it was a government building) and the whole thing will be the usual cock-up that we come to expect from the Bruxellois.

Eventually, of course, the window itself will quite likely fall out with potentially catastrophic consequences, as it was probably never the right size for the frame anyway. I remember a few years ago, one particularly windy afternoon when Avenue Louise - a major shopping street - was closed off because of window panes raining down from a new development. Brussels would be funny, in a Keystone Kops kind of a way, if it wasn't so bloody dangerous.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Energy Dependency - As Big A Threat As Terrorism?

Yesterday was as hectic as they get. Sadly, a planned meeting with Prof Igor Jurgen's, advisor to President Medvedev, was delayed due to his being stuck in our wonderful Brussels traffic. I had another meeting to go to, and so I was unable to meet the man who famously declared that modernisation of Russia is “impossible under the supremacy of the Putin elite”’. I suspect we would have seen eye-to-eye on that one!

And so to the European Wind Energy Association in the company of the CEO of engineering giant 'Sarens', and a leading academic from the European Geopolitical Forum. The wind sector in the Ukraine is outgrowing its own infrastructure, and there is a need to develop the ability to export surplus wind generated energy. It was an interesting meeting. The Ukraine needs to end its dependency on Russia as much as we do.

Reliance on Russian energy is as big a threat to our security as is terrorism, I would argue. In August 2008 Russia demonstrated its willingness to use 'hard power' to enforce its supremecy in this area.

72 hours before the invasion of Georgia, a pumping staion in eastern Turkey was taken out by the PKK, a Moscow sponsored terrorist group. This was not widely reported in the west. Russian aircraft also bombed perilously close to Georgian  pipelines outside of the disputed areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Was this a dry run for an attack on western energy infrastructure?

Russia is also investing heavily in western nuclear programmes, in some cases, such as in Bulgaria, taking a controlling interest.

The much vaunted BTC pipeline is supposed to give the EU a certain amount of security of supply. The EU, however, quietly pretends not to notice the Russian naval bases at Tartus and Latakia, which face the receiving end of BTC...

Renewable energy is not just an environmental issue . it is about security of supply. Something we do not have at the moment.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The mouse that roared.

"Belgium is dying. Behind the bland facade lies a failing state - a dying country which has never effectively functioned, and has finally become ungovernable. It's time to look forward to a world without Belgium".

So say the authors of the book 'After Belgium'. They are calling for independence for Flanders, with the French speaking Walloons being free to form their own republic. The Walloons are unlikely to want to go down this road, as their impoverished region is reliant on the industrious Flemings. Sadly, the French don't particularly want the Walloonies either.

I would love to see Belgium split, mainly because I live here, and it would be fascinating to watch it happen. An independent Flanders would probably be a great success, and there is a precedent in the successful split-up of Czechoslovakia. So let us watch and wait.....

Monday, 20 June 2011


I just finished reading Max Arthur's "Dambusters". Based on first hand accounts of the crews, and others at RAF Scampton, as well as German civilians who experienced the deluge, this is an easy but superb read. It is impossible to imagine ourselves in the situation these men were in, but they help us understand how they were able to function, and to maintain a semblance of normality, with the threat of death hanging over them every day. I strongly recommend this book.

As a young air cadet I spent time at Scampton back in 1977. 617 squadron were flying Vulcans there in those days, and what magnificent aircraft they were. I subsequently worked mainly around Phantoms, but I was lucky enough to catch the tail-end of a previous generation of aircraft. I once fitted a gunsite camera into a Lightning - this aircraft was essentially a metal tube wrapped around two huge engines, with wings and a couple of redtop missiles bolted on. It could take-off at astonishing speed, and then climb vertically like a rocket. It was a seriously impressive piece of kit. I also saw Buccaneers, Victors, and once got to sit in the cockpit of an F-104 Starfighter. By the time I left the service, Tornadoes were taking over from the Phantom, and it was the end of an era.

ps, Guy Gibson's dog is buried outside one of the hangars at Scampton, and yes - he was called 'Nigger"!

Timo Soini to run for president?

I think I actually admire Timo Soini. He is the Finnish MEP who resigned when his party, the True Finns, acheived a significant share of the vote in the country's recent general election. He had a reasonable expectation of entering government, probably at a high level. However, he refused to compromise his principles and allow his party to drop its opposition to EU bail-outs. “It would have been nice to be part of the government but you cannot betray yourself,” he said.

Compare that to the behaviour of UKIP.

Soini is essentially a nice chap, but I never realised he would be so principled. I have misgivings about allegations of racism, and his party contains some pretty eccentric types, but I now wish I had taken time to know him better when he was in Brussels. I still can't quite work out how a Finnish politician came to be a Millwall supporter, but hey, we need all the support we can get, so that's fine by us.

He has been re-elected as party leader, and it has just been announced that he is almost certain to run for president. It will be interesting to see how the electorate rewards him for his principled stand.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Daylight Robbery!

Another one of those marvellous Belgian moments.....

I called into the pharmacy today to pick something up for my daughter. They had what I needed.

"It will cost 4 euros more today because it is Sunday" the lady told me.

"How much is it?" I asked.

"11 euros and 10 cents" she replied. I agreed to buy the product.

"11 euros 10 plus 4 euros, that will be 16 euros 35 cents" she stated.

"How can 11,10 + 4 be 16,35?" I asked.

Without any shame at all, she looked me in the eye and replied "It is extra tax!"

As I produced my credit card, she said (quietly so that her colleagues could not hear, maybe) "I can only take cash today."

Having seen the customer before me pay with a card, I questioned her about this. She shrugged and suggested I go to the cashpoint across the road and get her some readies.

Needless to say, at this point I decided that I had had enough of this rather unsophisticated attempt at theft, and left the shop empty handed.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Strauss-Kahn's Manifesto for an EU Utopia.

Tempus Fugit is not just Dan Dare's spaceship! It's real, and it seems to be happening too fast.

The controversy surrounding Dominique Strauss-Khan made me think of his 'Building A Political Europe', published in 2004 at the very end of the Prodi Commission. It seems such a long time ago now, and so much has happened since the paper's publication. The face of the EU is barely recognisable from what it was in 2004. Strauss-Khan speculated on what was then the proposed constitution, and how it would enable future incumbents to create a "Utopia" (his word) for Europeans. It also lays down the challenge "We have built Europe: now let us build Europeans", which sounds a bit like something Pol Pot might have come out with if he had been born in France, and not one of it's protectorates.

The document was a eurosceptic's dream when it was published, and I recall being asked to write a précis by the MEP Jeffrey Titford. Sadly, this particular sitting target was never even noticed.

The paper is still worth reading, and it would be churlish to deny the insight and superb understanding of European politics that Strauss-Khan demonstrates. It does, however, read like an extremist manifesto. It also introduced into mainstream debate issues such as a European Tax, and the concept of super-constituencies, and their attendant Pan-European parties (which have actually been with us since 1992)..

The EU tax is still on the table - although it does already exist in a small way in the form of VAT - the Constitution is with us, under another name, and the super-constituencies are being debated at this very moment.

I enjoyed reading the paper again after all these years, but a word of warning - this has nothing to do with democracy as we in Great Britain know it!

Tuesday, 31 May 2011


It was nice to meet up with some old friends as well as some current colleagues at a recent meeting in London to discuss the relaunch of FUTURUS, the think tank.

One of the many criticisms that has come out of the recent civil war in UKIP is the lack of academic integrity and a reliance on outdated arguments. FUTURUS will not be a UKIP project as such, that would not help our case at all, it will be non-party political, but with strong eurosceptic leanings.

There are certain policy areas in which eurosceptics are provided with rows of open goals. Sadly these are all too often missed, amongst the shadow chasing and in-fighting that dominates our slice of political space. FUTURUS is not the only such project emerging at present, and I think we can look forward to a long-awaited refreshment and rejuvination of our platform.

I was delighted to receive a copy of the new book ”Too ‘nice’ to be Tories?: How the modernisers have damaged the Conservative party” by Anthony Scholefield and Gerald Frost. The author's analysis of the flawed reasoning behind the modernisation of the Conservative party is extremely interesting and their arguments convincing. I strongly recommend it.

Enjoying my second childhood!

My son and I spend a lot of time at the military museum in Brussels

For those who are interested in such things, a few new exhibits have arrived. An 88mm flak gun and a Hawk SAM system to name but two. It is also possible to actually watch restoration work going on, and a DH Dragon Rapide is starting to look pretty impressive now.

Well worth a visit, and there is a reasonable cafe in the aircraft hangar where on Saturdays it is quite normal to sit down and join groups of Belgian veterans  for a spot of lunch. Youngsters can also sit in the cockpit of a Hawker Hunter, and wander around an old Flying Boxcar, but for some of us the superb collection of WW1 biplanes is the star attraction.

Monday, 2 May 2011

No Virgins for Osama!

By now I guess Osama Bin Laden will have realised that all that stuff about 72 virgins awaiting him in paradise was all total nonsense.

I think he is somebody who will not be terribly missed, but I wonder how the conspiracy theorists are taking the news. Many of them believed that Bin Laden did not actually exist.

I am aquainted with a true master of plots and conspiracies - in fact I breifly shared an office with him - who once explained to me that Bin Laden was an invention of a world government, and the George Bush ordered the destruction of the World Trade Centre. This was so that this shady secret world government could introduce 'anti-terror' laws that would enable them to enslave us. He was truly convinced of this. Mind you, he also believed that the Russian invasion of Chechnya was a CIA plot, and that wind-turbines are throwing the Earth off of its axis.

How does he feel now that Bin Laden is dead? How is he taking the news that his sad theory was complete nonsense?

Another favourite topic of the conspiracy theorists is the Bilderberg group. In fact, I remember about 10 years ago there was speculation about whether that group really existed, or whether it was part of an elaborate smokescreen put in place to hide the existence of something even more shadowy - there are even conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories, it seems. I decided to find out a bit more about the Bilderberg group, so I called up their secretariat in the Hague. A charming lady answered all my questions. Another barmy theory bites the dust - a bit like Osama Bin Laden!

Monday, 18 April 2011

Afghan insurgents employed by Group 4 Security.

Typical Norfolk Villagers Go About Their Business - 2011
It's true! According to the Royal British Legion magazine 'Legion' (Mar/Apr 2011), the British Army has built a replica Afghan village in Norfolk  in order to train troops in a realistic environment. (They could have saved some money of course, and just deployed to Hounslow).

This village is so realistic it even has genuine Afghan insurgents - supplied by Group 4 Security! Honestly, I am not making this up.

This is brilliant. Group 4 have been coming in for a bit of stick here in Brussels, but this one really takes the biscuit.

Things have moved on a wee bit from my day, when troops were sent to Sherwood Forest to prepare for operations in Rhodesia. Lets just hope that when we pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 we leave behind us something a bit more like the real world, and a lot less like Zimbabwe . But you know what? I am not all that optimistic.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Belgians can't drive properly: Police approve!

This morning, whilst crossing the 5 lane chaos that is Rue Belliard, just outside the parliament, I and my fellow pedestrians had a narrow escape when a taxi came hurtling through a red light and over the crossing. This is far from being my first near death experience on a pedestrian crossing in Brussels.

Belgians, generally, are appalling drivers. Belgian taxi drivers, however, make Italian drivers look good. They are rude, ignorant, dangerous, and they don't give a flying f*ck for other road users. They are totally reliant on GPS systems that they are too stupid to use properly, and they overcharge shamelessly. Change is something that has to be demanded with menace. I once got into a cab with a driver who took me for about 20 minutes in what turned out to be the wrong direction, before he stopped the cab and called a friend for directions.

Now I learn that BelgaPlod are actually incentivising bad driving. The Brussels police have announced that from now on they are only going to prosecute speeding drivers if they are going really really fast.

Belgium already has a disproportionately high accident rate, partly due to the appalling state of its third world roads, and partly due to the stupidity of the average Belgian driver. Once on a pedestrian crossing in a shopping street I was almost hit by a van. His head was tipped back, and he appeared to driving one-handed while he tipped the contents of a crisp packet down his neck. He was totally unaware of the red light he was jumping, or the pedestrians he narrowly missed. This is normal behaviour on the roads of Brussels.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Iceland Votes No! We pay... as usual.

 Icelanders have voted to reject proposals to repay something like 4 billion quid that they owe us and the Dutch. Well, isn't that a great example of democracy in action? I may have a vote on whether or not to pay my phone bill next month, and taking into account the Icelandic result, I am expecting a landslide "No" vote.

"The Icelandic nation has been put in a terrible situation," Reykjavik voter Helgi Sigurdsson has told the Associated Press news agency. "It has two choices - both are bad." 

Well, how about a third option? How about giving Britain it's money back? 

The tragedy is that in a desperate bid to renage on their obligations, Icelanders will now push to join the EU asap, and pass the debt to Europe's taxpayers. What's good for the Irish, Greeks, and Portugese, is surely good enough for Helgi Sigurdsson. As for that cod they bravely fought us for in the 1970s? They can kiss that goodbye. The Spanish will sterilise their fishing grounds inside of a decade. Then, I guess, they will want compensation. Bloody parasites!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Belgians Deploy in Libya

And now for the news.

Belgian aircraft yesterday launched a strike in Libya. The Army is expected to come out in sympathy, as are Belgian post office workers, who will take industrial action for three days each side of the Easter holidays.

Two Belgian F-16s, borrowed from the Royal Netherlands Air Force and  piloted by Germans, are known to be in-theatre. 

Belgian politicians with stakes in the nation's arms trade have approved the supply of arms to the value of €20 billion for the NATO operation, although there are no plans to actually deliver them. The bill has already been sent to Washington, and there is a proviso for any unused weapons to be supplied to the Congo at preferential rates.

Senior Head of the Army, General Jaqueline de Smedt, aged 23, told journalists from her hotel room in Paris, "We have plans to deploy 200 Group 4 security guards on the outskirts of Tripoli, but it is highly unlikely that this will actually happen. We will also be sending a detachment of Special Forces just as soon as we assess exactly what their special needs are".

The Belgian navy has agreed to deploy a submarine, U-251, in Libyan waters. This is expected to arrive in Honolulu in September after training exercises off the coast of Atlantis are completed.

Several Belgian Prime Ministers were unavailable for comment, or indeed for anything else.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

British War Memorial in Doel Dismantled

In Doel, in East Flanders, the British war monument at the yacht basin has been pulled down. This happened at the request of the local authorities.

The monument was erected in 1948 to commemorate the British soldiers who protected Antwerp and East Flanders against German V1 and V2 attacks at the end of the war. The municipality of Beveren wants to move the monument to the Prosperpolder, as the future of the polder town of Doel, near the port of Antwerp, is uncertain. The local pressure group concerned with the future of Doel, Doel 2020, is angry. "The monument is pulled down before a public investigation has been started into the future of the village. This again shows how people deal with legal procedures, public investigations and zoning plans", Jan Creve of Doel 2020 explains.

"It's a pity that it happened in a sneaky way", says Alain Heyrman who represents a local group to protect the monument. "We will continue our petition and we hope that the monument can keep its place on the banks of the Scheldt, between the windmill and the nuclear plant."
Pressure groups have asked the Flemish minister Geert Bourgeois (Flemish nationalist) to protect the monument and say that they are not giving up the fight.

An unfortunate acronym...

I was thrilled to learn of the existence of an armed political organisation that calls itself MILF. Now this is a highly unfortunate acronym, but one that has brightened up my day no end.

The joy continued when I checked out their website, which declares that "The MILF is the vanguard of the Islamic movement in the Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao and the neighbouring islands." This conjures up some pretty special imagery, but whilst I want it to be so, I know that it can never be.

MILF is, in fact, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which operates with a small force of soldiers in some islands I never heard of before.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Ben Ali is coming..........

Zin El Abidine Ben Ali is the deposed 74 year old former president of Tunisia. He is not too popular at the moment, and there are fears for his safety. And so he is planning to move to Belgium.

It appears that he has a distant relative in the village of Rellegem, a few miles outside Brussels. In the interests of security, BelgaPlod are not divulging the identity of person concerned, but should Ben Ali rock up in Rellegem it probably won't be too difficult to work out where he is staying.

Actually, he should do quite well here. It didn't take me too long to realise that the North African community, which is huge in these parts, is the nearest you will find in Belgium to a thriving economy - it is certainly the only community in Belgium that understands the concept of good customer service. Indeed, should he decide that a drastic career change is not what he wants, he could always apply to become Prime Minister here - we haven't had a real one of those for ages.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

French Opinion Polls - bad news for Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy : Trailing in the Polls
 This week we decamped to Strasbourg for the monthly round of meetings and events that I alone seem to enjoy so much. Everybody else in the eurosceptic camp claims to hate it here, but I find it a beautiful city, and I love to be here. And the work is never dull. And during these weeks I tend to ponder (uncharacteristically) on matters French. And so I note with interest that Marine Le Pen is now favourite to take the French Presidency.

This makes me feel a little more important than I was last week, and I will tell you why. I know this is a tenuous link, but.....

If she wins, then I will be able to say "The French President's dad is in my old office"!

I told you it was tenuous, but Jean Marie Le Pen has indeed taken over what was my first office when I arrived in Brussels.

I know we have been here before, with JM Le P himself getting close to the presidency on one occasion, but I don't think it will happen for his daughter either, but it raises questions about what turns people towards nationalist politics.

I don't actually think that this is about immigration this time around, but more likely a reaction to the economic crisis, and the tendency for folk to close ranks during times of trouble. The fact that Fonzie - sorry, Sarkozy - is languishing at the bottom of the opinion polls bears out my theory. In fact, I suspect he will be returned to the Presidency when the time comes, not least if he learns the lessons of this week's polls and adapts his presentation accordingly.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Service as Usual - Virtually Non Existant!

"Not in Service"
Today is a nice day. The roads were clear this morning, and traffic was flowing freely. There were also fewer people on the pavements, and best of all, not a single bus to be seen. The buses of Brussels are a menace - drivers are surly, ignorant, and appear to have no idea what their mirrors or indicators are for. Imagine a driver who recently escaped from Alcatraz, a bus that doubles as a recycling dump for vomit and cigarette ends, and roads that resemble the Congo before the aid arrived, and you will have a pretty good picture of a bus journey through the city that likes to think of itself as the "capital of Europe".

The respite on the roads this morning is because there is something of a general strike in Belgium today. They strike a lot in Belgium.

In terms of industrial output this will have a negligible effect, as very little work is ever actually done here on a Friday anyway. It appears that the unions are unhappy about a new legal framework for pay and conditions in the private sector. It does not affect the public sector workers, but isn't it nice to take Friday off anyway and have a long weekend - there are plenty of expats here to get on with the work and keep Belgium's tiny little economy ticking over.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Speaking at the University of Kent

L-R Dr Marat Terterov, Ambassador Vladimir Rakhmanin, et Moi.

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the first of a series of lectures on EU External Relations at the University of Kent recently.

The key speaker was Ambassador Vladimir Rakhmanin, Deputy Secretary-General of the Energy Charter, and former Head of Protocol to President Putin. So I guessed I might have a tough act to follow. I was right.

I led on my thoughts about the polar development of Europe. We not only live in a multi-polar world, we live in a multi-polar Europe. The EU is not as dominant as it would like to be, at least not in political terms. The other two major actors exerting influence are Turkey and Russia. In the case of the former, the alternative to the EU membership that is denied to the Turks is to build their own powerbase, which they are doing very effectively. In the case of the latter, I speculated on the emergence of a Sino-Russian pact, and the economic and security implications that may have for the EU.

The Ambassador disagreed with me about the likelihood, but I remain convinced that we are already seeing the emergence of such a pact. Since Putin first took power in 2000, Russia and China have become very close indeed. In fact, the two nations have always been close, it was only after the ideological divergence following the Second World War that the two clashed. The rift appears to be healed now, and I believe that the re-election of Putin next year will bring about a number of re-alignments in Europe and in Central Asia.

We did both agree on one thing: Fukiyama was spectacularly wrong when he proclaimed the End of History. Liberal Democracy, he argued, became the one dominant ideology after the fall of Communism. We now have to take into account Sovereign Democracy, whatever form of democracy develops in the wake of the welcome fall of the Arab regimes, and the Command Capitalism of China. The latter two, incidentally, are stronger politically than the former.

We live in interesting times.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Trains, Pains, and Automobiles.

Picture the scene - a busy square (Place du Luxembourg), always vibrant, packed with pedestrians, lined with bus stops and a taxi rank. What sort of a person, whilst driving through all this, would suddenly stop his car, and for no apparent reason, and without checking his rear-view mirror, throw his car into reverse? You guessed it -  A Belgian!

As I am recovering from a broken knee, I really didn't need an Audi A6 slamming into my leg. The good thing is, I got to teach the driver and his young lady some choice words of old Anglo Saxon. The people waiting for a number 38 bus probably picked up something new as well.

Subsequently, the Audi did a 3 point turn before driving onto the crowded pavement. It moved backwards and forwards a bit, and then reversed into the path of a bus. All this happened yesterday lunchtime.

This morning I came to work on the Metro. As the train arrived at the station, I could see that the driver was sending a text message on his mobile. During the 10 minute journey, the train made two emergency stops, with passengers being thrown around, and lucky me, I got a pushchair and child hurled into my leg, which now hurts like hell. The driver was clearly not seeing red lights, and so the auto-pilot was kicking in and stopping the train for him.

Everything in this posting is absolutely normal in Brussels. Nobody bats an eyelid.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ice City

I saw something truly wonderful yesterday when I left my office. As I like to give the maximum effort on behalf of the taxpayers, I often work late. Last night was one of those occasions, and I left at about 9.30pm.

A thick fog descended on Brussels, and this, combined with a sudden drop in temperature and some weird atmospheric conditions, led to everything being coated in a thin film of ice. Roads, walls, even the grass. It looked like something from a fairytale.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Belgian Customer Service

This could really apply to any Belgian institution or company. I once had a problem with my internet connection, which Belgacom were able to trace remotely to the failure of a piece of kit. They sent an engineer, telling me that the replacement would be free. They then added 70 euros to my next bill, and when I complained they told me "Yes it is free but you have to pay for it to be done"....

When I moved into my apartment I had to spend an afternoon at home waiting for the Electrabel engineer to come and connect me. It took him all of 15 seconds to throw a switch in the cellar. I then got a bill for his services....

Monday, 24 January 2011

Goodbye to the Nimrod.

Having spent £3.25 billion on the new Nimrod MRA4, HMG is scrapping it before it enters service. The cost of scrapping the nine aircraft will add an extra £200 million. This is apparently how the British Conservative government defines "saving money".

Not just in London, but across the world, security agencies are extremely concerned about the terrorist threat to next year's London Olympics. The new Nimrods have a superb electric intelligence gathering capability, and would be key to the security operations. But we won't have them.

A personal anecdote.... back in 1977 as a young cadet, I spent time at RAF HalFar in Malta. At nearby Luqa there was a flight of Nimrods, and we got to have a good look around them. I remember one crewman showing the onboard computer, and proudly informing me that "this computer is so advanced, I can actually play chess against it!"

Times have changed, in more ways than one. Sadly, our priorities appear to have become a little confused.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

HMS Ark Royal - the end of an era.

Today there was a parade to mark the early decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal. Is nothing sacred, I ask myself? I remember how proud I was, as a schoolboy, when the first of the Invincible Class was launched in the 1970s.

Perhaps we should decommission our entire political elite? They seem to have lost the will to govern, having enthusiatically handed over as much sovereignty as possible (and here I accuse the Conservative Party above all others!) Perhaps the Tories are 'clearing the decks' for the new Fleet carriers that they are building, with our money, on behalf of the EU navy....

A good friend of mine (and London UKIP members will know who I am referring to) literally lost the will to live a few years ago. He was so despondant about what had happened to his country. Sadly, this likeable gent took his own life. There are days when I get a wee glimpse into how he must have felt.

Is it time for a revolution?

Friday, 21 January 2011

HS 125 to stand down after 45 years.

Apparently, the RAF will no longer need to train weapons systems operators, or indeed any rear crew at all in the future. Therefore, that lovely little aircraft, the Dominie, is to be stood down. After an astonishing 45 years of service, the last seven aircraft, operated by 55 squadron, are to be decommissioned.

I do hope that any future aggressors will be so kind as to take into account that we don't actually have much in the way of either aircraft or aircrew anymore, and go easily on us.

Bloody heartbreaking, isn't it!

Friday, 14 January 2011

A Bit Of Fashion Advice....

The Crystal Palace Pub
circa 1978
 Since I spent most of my teenage years walking around in ankle length drape jackets, drainpipes, and brothel creepers, cynics might question my competence to pass judgement on the sartorial elegance of today's youth.

But youth fashions today seem to me to be somewhat bland, and lacking in imagination to say the least.

One little affectation which seems to be making a reappearence is the habit of wearing only one glove.

I think it was the great Gene Vincent himself who started that one, with Alvin Stardust and Micheal Jackson (both big Vincent fans) following suit in subsequent decades.

This morning on the Brussels Metro I noticed a young chap displaying this particular affectation, but not quite getting it right. Therefore I would like to offer the following advice in the unlikely event that any Belgian teenagers . and some of them do know the alphabet - are following this blog. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

The right way (a la Vincent et al). Black leathers, gleaming winklepickers, and a skin tight black leather glove.

The wrong (Belgian) way. Ill-fitting blue-grey jacket from Primark, grubby jeans, white trainers, and a single grey wooly mitten.

Mittens are simply not Rock n Roll, I'm sorry. I know it was a bit chilly today, but this is not an accurate interpretation of the trend.

And at least we combed our hair properly!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Meeting Gérard Latortue

With Nikki Sinclaire and Gérard Latortue
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the first  elected president of Haiti. Whilst not a total failure, he was accused of serious human rights abuses, and corruption. He was subsequently to be removed in a coup d'etat

Aristide was replaced by Gérard Latortue, who was appointed as Prime Minister by a "council of the wise", set up up by international powers.

Latortue served for two years, at which point elections were held, and a proper parliament was elected by the people.

He is highly regarded on the international stage, and I was very proud to meet with him, along with Nikki Sinclaire MEP, in Brussels recently. I think that the word "charismatic" is an understatement when applied to this particular gentlemen. He was an opponent of the evil François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, and when Aristide tried to buy him off with a senior political position, he refused the post. He took on a corrupt judiciary - and sacked them all!

Gérard Latortue is a man of courage and integrity, and I will be delighted to tell my children that I shook his hand and exchanged a joke or two with him.

Ethnic Tensions in the Belgian Armed Forces.

Belgian Chief of Staff, General Charles-Henri Delcour, says that he is concerned about the recent economy drive in the Belgian Army. The Army has been forced to make a total of 130 million euros in savings, which seems like a tiny amount when compared to the way the British defence budget has been slashed to the bone.

General Delcour adds that although a lot of the material used by Belgian soldiers is desperately in need of replacement, much-needed new equipment has not materialised - echoeing the British experience.

This, he says, is in part due to the on-going political crisis. Belgium is still operating with an interim government, with the King assuming greater responsibilities. However, even before last June’s elections, Belgium had the second lowest defence budget per capita of any NATO member.
General Delcour points to the psychological pressures Belgian troops are often put under when on foreign missions, and is unhappy with the Defence Minister’s refusal to allow soldiers returning from Afghanistan a rest and recuperation break on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Poor dears!

But it is the old division between the French and the Flemish that really exposes the weakness of the Belgian armed forces. The General is critical of those in the south of the country that have expressed concerns about Flemings being over-represented in Belgium's armed services. He points to the generally superior knowledge of other languages among Flemish candidates as well as Fleming’s willingness to move away from their home areas as the main reasons for Flemish over representation in the services..

He also highlighted the fact that many Francophone service personnel are reluctant to accept postings in Flanders.

Monday, 10 January 2011

UKIP Policy - You Couldn't Make It Up!

Would you buy a used policy from these men?
The UKIP policy making process was always a bit different. Although I was one of those who called for a widening of the policy base from the moment I joined the party, I eventually came to agree with Roger Knapman who argued for a narrower and more focussed set of policies concentrating on withdrawal. Britain does need a new party, but UKIP clearly ain't it!

I was very surprised, however, to read that UKIP is now coming out in favour of farming subsidies, a la the Common Agricultural Policy. Opposition to the CAP is one thing that traditionally unites all eurosceptics - and quite a lot of europhiles as well. Maybe UKIP has become so obsessively contrarian that it has even turned against conventional euroscepticism now, who knows?

I recall a transport policy paper which called for the electrification of a line that had, in fact, been closed for many years. There was also a local government paper that was quite probably the most politically illiterate thing I have ever seen.

The biggest question that observers will be asking, however, is not whether UKIP has done an about-turn on farming subsidies, but whether the party is, as it appears to be, out of control.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Youth Unemployment in Brussels

According to recent statistics, youth unemployment in the Brussels region is at a staggering 35%. That takes some doing, so well done chaps!

In fact, the figures may not accurately reflect the true situation, as working on the black market is absolutely normal. Indeed, most Belgian families will be reliant to a certain degree on the black money that one or more members will be bringing in.

The social costs of employing people, especially part-time workers, is horrific in Belgium, so many businesses simply do not do it. They can't afford to.

The costs of setting up a small business in Belgium are equally daunting, as is the associated paperwork. Taxes are high, VAT thresholds are low, and so again, many people simply do not bother. A lot of Belgians of my aquaintance set up their businesses in the UK - it works for them, and it puts a little extra money into the UK economy, so I am all for that ruse.

One would have thought that the Belgians would be worried about all this - after all, their national deficit is now around 100% of GDP, which technically makes them a bankrupt nation. The roads are falling apart, and the cities are seething with ethnic tensions.

But they don't seem to care at all.

The Brussels region floats on a sea of subsidies. It is kept afloat by the transnational institutions that attract so much cash from across the world. But there is some bad news for the Belgians.... NATO is upping sticks and moving out.

NATO headquarters are moving to Bonn, which makes absolute sense as the focus of the alliance is shifting eastwards.

This hasn't broken in the Belgian press yet, but I expect it will shortly as it is common knowledge amongst journalists.