Hanging around in limbo

I was in Brussels this weekend, to work on getting the house organised and see my friends of course. It was Rachel’s birthday and so we had a lovely brunch outside the Orangerie in Parc d’Egmont on Sunday. Most of my closest friends were there, which was lovely, but it was really strange to have to leave them all to go and catch the train “home”.  I got an e-mail from Rachel apologising for not talking to me much, as she still doesn’t think of me as not living there! But funnily enough, I feel based in London, I just don’t have the community of friends here yet that I do in Brussels. I’m sure I will though! It’ll also help when the move is completed and I have my own things around me – I was crazy happy yesterday at having a few more of my own clothes hanging up in the wardrobe!

The office is pretty quiet today and the phones are up the creek, which helps! I found out I have to go to Liverpool later this week with the President. My first official engagement, if you like! It’s a whirlwind visit and we’re trying to set up a press point – if you’re interested, let me know!

First the cucumbers, now the kiwis

[Sigh] One step forward, two steps back…

The redtops are full of a story today about a market trader who is being fined for his kiwis being 1mm smaller than the rules for grade 2 kiwis allow. Of course “Brussels bureaucrats” are getting the blame. Now, there are a number of things here:

1) We do not ensure implementation of the rules, the countries do. So the bureaucrat in this case is British, not Brussels

2) We are trying to get the rules changed so that even if there are standards for how things can be marketed, produce that falls below those standards can be sold.

3) The standards are set at UN, not EU level: http://www.unece.org/trade/agr/standard/fresh/fresh_e/46kiwifruit_2008.pdf

3) In this particular case the fruit were on average 4g below the minimum weight for a kiwi fruit to be sold for food. Now I’m no mathematician, but I reckon that’s more than 1mm smaller than regs – in fact the regs don’t have any size requirement in them at all.

I was thinking about this case in the shower this morning (rehearsing how I would make these points to anyone that calls us…) and it occurred to me that the humble kiwifruit is a result of one of the best ever marketing campaigns – remember when they weren’t called kiwi fruit, rather cape gooseberries? That was dreamt up by the New Zealand fruit marketing people, to encourage people to buy theirs. It’s all spun back on them though, because now they’re called kiwi fruit, wherever they are from!

Quite a busy day today, not helped by my being out of the office yesterday afternoon with the hayfever. Sounds stupid, but I was having such a bad attack I couldn’t do anything except blow my nose and feel sorry for myself! Today we’re trying to place an article on Zimbabwe, have another on patient rights that needs serious rewriting, I’ve got to get in touch with the Arsenal Double Club people as it looks we’ll be able to arrange a visit to Anderlecht with the kids, been talking to the National Theatre about how we can market the European aspect of the Watch This Space festival. And then I head off to Brussels this afternoon! Looking forward to seeing everyone there again.

Headless chicken

It’s been a bit of a bonko day today, with me running around like the proverbial headless chicken. Tuesday is planning day, when we have our regular team meeting, so I spent the morning trying to work out what would be happening in the next week or so, which Commissioners are coming to town and what the good stories are, or the ones we need to be ready for if people are negative. I had lunch with a BBC journalist that I had met on Saturday night at the French reception at the V&A. I actually first met her years ago when she did a piece on the Commissioner I was working for at the time, so it was nice to reconnect with her. We just talked about some of the big topics in the European sphere at the moment – the treaty of course, but others like energy, biofuels, GM. Nothing concrete is going to come out of it at this stage, but it’s all part of the job – keeping the fires smouldering so that when something becomes a hot topic, the knowledge is there (if that’s not too mixed a metaphor!). We also had a meeting with the Foreign Office communication team and the British Council about an idea for the future – a mock EU Council. It has been done for a few years in Northern Ireland and we’re looking at doing it more widely. I think it should be fun – takes me back to the horsemeat quota exercise during my civil service induction training, when we all had to take the role of certain Member States trying to finalise the allocation of horsemeat quotas for a particular year! Add to all of this trying to write an article on tomorrow’s proposal for a “Small Business Act” and fierce hayfever, and you can see a) why I have been decapitated poultry and b) quite how varied this job is!

Yesterday was differently fun – during the afternoon we got a request for Commissioner Wallstrom, who was here to attend a Committee at the House, to do the lead interview on Channel 4 news. She had been at a demonstration about the terrible situation in Zimbabwe that morning and so C4 wanted to have her on. Great stuff! It meant liaising with Channel 4 about times, getting the low-down on the latest situation from Brussels, briefing her, taking her to the interview, which had to be done by the tube because of difficulties getting a signal round the office and then getting her back more or less in time for the interview she had agreed to do earlier. Anyway, it all worked out in the end, and it was quite fun. I’ve had quite a bit to do with Mrs Wallstrom over the years – she covered for Anna Diamantopoulou as Employment Commissioner when I was Spoke while Anna was doing the Greek elections – and it’s always a pleasure. And the interview came out pretty well when it was shown later that evening.

Anyway, tonight will be nice, because I’m heading down to South Croydon to have dinner with Alexia and Alan, friends from Brussels from way back. It’s their daughter’s second birthday, so I hope I will get away in time to see the kids before they go to bed. Better try to get a wee pressie as well.

London is a village

I’ve already discovered how small London can be due to various overlaps with people – Hannah and the architecture festival, for example. But it was literally a village on saturday when I met my friend Kathryn and we took her some to the Holy Trinity Fete on Clapham Common. It was all a traditional English village fete should be – tents selling fairy cakes (and not an over-zealous EU food inspector in sight…!), dogs wearing rosettes from the dog show, a series of vegetable monsters that had been judged and prizes won, plus tombolas, raffles, games and even a brass band. And best of all, a Pimms stall! It was great, just like the fetes you remember when you were a kid.

In the evening I headed up to town, where Exhibition Road had been closed for music day and the beginning of the London Festival of Architecture. it was also the celebration (10 days early…) of the beginning of the French Presidency. I walked up exhibition road where there were bands on the street corners and loads of cool architectural exhibits. Then I headed to the Albert Memorial, where there was a stage set up in conjunction with the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. As my luck would have it, I got there as some Germans who had listened to too much Kraftwerk were twiddling knobs, but it was good to be on the stall for half an hour and interact with people. It’s funny – far from what I would have expected – but I really get the feeling that the British public aren’t as EU-sceptic as they’re painted. Various things over the last few days are highlighting this – comments left on the BBC website, letters to some regional press, conversations with people who are from outside the “establishment”, EU or UK, who are fed up of only ever being given one side of the story. Maybe my work here will not be as hopeless as many are leading me to believe!!

Getting a message across

One of the problems I face here in London is a very sophisticated media structure and a very sophisticated audience. You see this immediately if you compare your average UK ad and your average Belgian ad. We in the UK focus much more on humour, or design or innovation. That’s a programme that we have to get with, and why I talk alot internally about the need to differentiate our messages (and that’s something I’ve been aware of for a while, not just since I “went native” in London.

Anyway, all that, because I wanted to post this great clip that has gone up on EUtube, the Commission’s channel on YouTube. I knew about it a while ago, as it’s a science clip and I had seen the storyboard, but I think it came out brilliantly. Let me know what you think.

Doing something for consumers

We’ve created a bit of a buzz today with the visit of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Magdalena Kuneva – the FT picked up some of a speech that she’s giving today, where she says she wants to stop on-line retailers being able to limit sales to one country. So if I want to buy an computer on-line, I should be able to buy it from the German site of the maker if that’s cheaper, rather than being automatically directed to the UK site and only allowed to buy from there. There was just a question in the press-room about it, we have a good load of consumer journalists coming to talk about it over lunch and BBC Five Live have just asked for an interview. There are a few really good lessons to draw. Firstly, an interesting speech will have more impact if you let the press have at least some of it before it’s given. Secondly, the EU is doing a lot for consumer rights and has done a lot in the past, such as legislating against unfair commercial practices. Thirdly, the UK press is interested in European stories where they see the impact it will have on people’s lives. My job is to make the most of those opportunities when they come up, and maybe it will help to balance some of the very negative messages that are out there.

Having to be all grown up…

One of the “head” reasons I had for taking this job in London (rather than the “heart” ones that went: want to live in London! Want to show the UK why the EU is a pretty good thing on the whole!) was that it would give me management experience. The Commission as an institution isn’t very good at that – you get no chance to manage staff (except perhaps an intern) until you become a head of unit and then – bang!- you have responsibility for loads of them. In the smallest units maybe 10-12, some have fifty or even one hundred. So the chance to run a team, get involved in recruitment, allocation of tasks, day-to-day running, reports etc was too good to turn down. I might suck at it, but if I do, at least I’ll have found out before I can do too much damage!!

Anyway, all of that because today was a “management” day. We had the heads of our “satellite” offices here, from Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, and I was asked to present to them an idea I have for a team-building with the press team here and those in the satellites. If anyone has any good ideas about how to do a team-building event on a budget, with people of all ages and physical abilities, then please leave them for me to crib! I also interviewed two people to fill some of the current or possible future vacancies in the press team. I had sent them a mock week of press releases and events and asked them to identify how they would use that to plan our week’s activities. Quite a useful exercise, certainly for me, but I think also for them, as it gave them a glimpse of what working here would really be about.

But in among all that “management” stuff, I got to do my first TV interview as UK Head of Media, for Meridian (South of England ITV) on the fruit and veg marketing standards story. Hopefully someone will see it somewhere!

On the personal front, a possible flatshare for the house in Balham came by last night. Seemed a really nice guy and quite compatible on the “sharing living space” front. Just waiting to hear whether he’s prepared to take it or not. If not, then it’s back to square one, as the houseboat is great, but needs some work doing and I’m not going to say either way until I’ve seen how it has been done. Don’t want to get stuck with some shonky patch-up job.

Had a lovely time in Brussels, though it does feel weird being there in this kind of limbo between living there and having left. With the cats there, and most of my clothes and all of my furniture, I haven’t left in my head, but I definitely felt I was visiting. I suppose it’s that issue of routine again – home is where the routine is…that’s a sad indictment of our existence.

Home-owning creeps ever closer, with the mortgage offer date of 23 June (the date I can signal my acceptance) approaching. Have hopefully got the power of attorney for my father to sign the papers all sorted out, so fingers crossed by early July, I should own a lovely little French house. I spoke to my parents today and they were up in that valley, checking out a rafting trip (…!). They commented again what a pleasant place it is, much nicer than the St Lary valley, which is the next one over, which is much narrower and more claustrophobic.

Off to the launch of the London Architecture festival now where hopefully I’ll see Hannah Cox from Brussels. It’s really a small world!

Back in Brussels

I’m in Brussels at the moment – I have to get the house sorted out for the move, get quotes etc, and I’ve been asked to take part in an event tomorrow about communicating Europe, organised by the Committee of the Regions. It’s been nice to be back. I went into the Commission today for the press briefing – the issue of the straight cucumbers that I wrote about a few days came up! seems to have really fired the imagination – apparently news 24 were asking people if they would buy knobbly veg. The irony is that they probably said no…! The other irony is that apparently these regulations came in at the request of…the UK when they joined in the early 70s! Shame this story is so big today and not on Friday, when it might have shown some of the Irish voters that we can be about deregulation as much as anything else. I saw some of the UK and Irish journalists today and one of them (the Irish) said that the story about the EU banning dogs from B&Bs could have made the difference in the referendum. Thinking about it, that’s probably what the motivation was for running it then. I was going to muse whether the media realise the power that they have, but I strongly suspect they know very well and are prepared to use it in such instances. It does make me quail a bit at the task ahead of me – what can I do against the might of Fleet Street? But I think that sometimes cynical people underestimate the power of naive idealism like mine. I’m not a committed European because they pay me a nice salary or because I want there to be a European federal super-state with all powers concentrated in Brussels. I’m a committed European because I believe that our future is more secure if we work together. And I hope that some of my enthusiasm for and belief in that will be communicated to people while I am in London.

Coo, that was a bit heavy. Sorry about that! If you’d like to do something fun and educational tomorrow, head down to Trafalgar Square, where UNHCR are setting up a refugee camp. It will allow people to see what it is to be a refugee in somewhere like Sudan. Head over to the European tent if you’re there and see how we give considerable support to organisations like the Red Cross working in some of the worst human disaster zones in the world.

What it’s all about

Today has been a little microcosm of what this job is going to be about.

We started out with two “bonkers Brussels” stories, neither of which were correctly reported. Firstly was the one about “Brussels” (I love the way they say that) has banned dogs from the kitchen of good old British B&Bs. The times story was written by the ironically named Simon de Bruxelles, if you can believe that – Geoff Meade says that’s his real name; I thought it had to be a pseudonym for one of the Brussels journalists! Anyway, as usual, this is a story of overzealous implementation in the UK – our rules make people working in the food industry responsible for ensuring their food is prepared in hygenic conditions. This may require keeping animals out of food preparation areas. But the rules have flexibility to take into account the presence of animals provided appropriate measures are taken to ensure there is no contamination. Which makes sense – none of us wants dog hair in our fry-up, I suspect! The other story was that the Commission is bringing in new rules that will close duty-free shops in regional airports. Basically the MEP (Con…) peddling this one was a few months out of date, because the Council working group is amending a Commission proposal that might have had this effect and we’re completely happy to go along with that. Which just shows that a) the member states have an important role in European processes and b) the Commission doesn’t have overarching unchecked power to decide about European citizens’ lives.

Then mid-morning, I found myself – joy of joys! – at the stage door of the National Theatre! We are sponsoring the longest street arts festival in the UK, organised by the NT, called Watch This Space. I actually went along to this a few years ago as a punter, so it’s exciting to think we’ll be directly involved. We met with the organisers and press people to talk about how we are going to do the launch. It’s a fabulous project, and a fantastic opportunity for serious visibility (in the most literal sense – you’ll be able to see the banner from the other side of the river I think!). Of course, all these Polish, Spanish, French and whatever acts would have much more difficulty coming here and taking part without EU rules on free movement and so on. And we hope it will be a showcase for UK acts to go to European countries. I’m just going to love the cultural diplomacy side of this job!

Saw a flat at lunchtime, in Clapham/Battersea. In old local authority buildings, so pretty unprepossessing from the outside, but quite nice inside, certainly less soulless that the Greenwich Millennium Village places I saw yesterday! Also off for another viewing of the houseboat today, so will see how that goes. No luck finding someone to share the Balham place yet and they had someone to see it yesterday who was very interested, so that might be an idea I have to give up, unfortunately. Such is life…

Hunting for the perfect house

It’s all about the house-hunting today I’m afraid. Excited as I am about getting out there and describing to people what the EU does for them, I need somewhere to live and no-one is going to help me with that! So evenings this week are spent trailing around estate agents and visiting places. I was down in East Greenwich yesterday and back there again today. I’ve also hatched a plan with the people where I am lodging about renting their place, if I can find someone to share with.  So a few irons in the fire and I hope that before too long I’ll have something sorted out. I seem to be a difficult customer for two reasons – I’m looking for an unfurnished place and so much seems to be furnished and also I have the cats, and very few landlords want pets. I can understand not wanting them in a furnshed place, but I don’t see the issue in an unfurnished place – after all it’s my furniture they’ll be scratching. So the search goes on and my best hope is a cat-loving landlord (which is the bonus of the houseboat).

There are some great EU stories around today. As someone trying to bring pets into this country, I’m becoming very familiar with the pet passport scheme, which is now being extended to horses. There have been rules in place before (there need to be for all those Irish racehorses to come over here and win all the major races!) but now they will be based on a microchip, like for cats, dogs and ferrets, rather than a hand-drawn outline. There’s also a food safety aspect to this, less in the UK because we don’t eat each much horsemeat, but they do in lots of other countries. I’ve never had horsemeat, and I suppose I should try it one day, just not to make a snap judgement, though I can’t say it appeals.

Another story I liked was that Love Hearts, refreshers and Double Lollies, among other things, will soon be free of e-numbers as Swizzlers Matlow are going to stop using additives that are not EU-approved. As a bit of a fizzy sweet addict, I think that’s a move in the right direction. There’s no reason that sweets shouldn’t be as natural as possible – frankly, they taste better when they are and it does mitigate the guilt a little!!

I’m off to a meeting this afternoon for the national end of the “For Diversity. Against Discrimination” campaign. There’s A nice circularity about that meeting – my first press conference as a spokesperson was the launch of this campaign in 2003, when Commissioner Diamantopoulou was photographed with the crash test dummies used in the launch ads. The thing that this campaign has got right is the emphasis on national differentiation. So often (generally because of resources) we organise a campaign centrally, usually focused on Brussels, and that just isn’t the way to get to people. Media and advertising are so different from one Member State to another. In one, humour might work well, where as that might put people off in another. Something we always have to keep in mind.