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.

The renaissance of the bendy cucumber

There’s a great story floating around in the press today (Metro and Daily Star at the moment) about the EU bringing an end to rules on bendy cucumbers etc. And this one is no Euromyth, it’s true! The Commission has proposed to the Member States that we rationalise the marketing standards for fruit and veg and abolish them for the most heavily traded products. Not only will this reduce red tape, but, at a time when people are concerned about the environmental and social impact of food waste, means that less food will be thrown away. All seems very sensible to me. But if you can believe it, a majority of member states were against it when we put it to the management committee! As so beautifully put by my colleague Johan in Brussels “The Commissioner is determined that this should go ahead and is surprised by such strong resistance to such a practical example of simplification”.  Let’s just hope that common sense prevails and the European Commission gets backing for such a sensible proposal.

An example like this just goes to show that it’s too easy to talk about “Brussels”. Sometimes (more often than not actually) the real decisions are taken by people based in London, Berlin, Ljubljana and elsewhere. The EU isn’t “them”, it’s “us” and that realisation is an important part of making it work for us. People can affect the decisions that are taken in a European context as much as any decisions taken by government, through their ministers and their MEPs.

Hayfever strikes

My weekend was wiped out by the sky-high pollen count, and given I was out in the country, it hit me hard. Still, it was lovely to see Dom, my brother. He’s just bought a house in Buckingham so I went to see that – it’s lovely and I think he and Esther (the black lab) will be very happy there. I had such an English weekend – watching cricket on the lawn at Stowe, attending a dog show with the beagle puppies. We went down to the kennels afterwards (can you have imagined me visiting kennels even a few years ago??!!) and saw the Beagledors that have resulted from Esther’s brother Louie getting into the Beagles a couple of months ago. They are very sweet!

Back to work though and the start of my second week. It’ll be a big week for the EU, with the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the No vote there strengthening all the time. Of course the Commission are (interested) bystanders in all this, but we do need to get this institutional stuff sorted out so we can move beyond it, and show what it is we do concretely, rather than giving the impression that all the EU does is discuss treaties.

The Employment Council is today discussing working time, which is always a big story in the UK. And this one has lasted a while – I was dealing with it when I was Employment Spokeswoman in 2003/2004! I hope that we’ll be able to reach a solution today, because both employers and the working public in the UK and the rest of the EU need to know where they stand on this issue.

Welcome to London Transport

It had all been going too well – turning up to Balham station, getting on the train – I even got a seat one morning. Last night coming back from Notting Hill the Circle Line was disrupted so I got the Central and then Northern, which stopped at Kennington, so I had to change… And then this morning the Northern Line was suspended so Balham overland station was crazy busy. Oh for the little city where I can walk to work and you can get anywhere in a cab for €20…

But then, I was in Notting Hill because I was at the closing night of our Common Language Film Festival and the star of the final film Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, the one and only Kristin Scott Thomas was there and did a Q&A afterwards. And as I was walking to Balham train station I bumped into my brother’s best friend and one of the people I’ve known longest in my life, so was able to travel in with him. Now, none of that happens in Brussels!

The admin of being in a new place is coming together – I’ve got my work mobile phone now, I can answer my colleagues’ phones and all the computer systems seem to work. Having said that, someone hasn’t flicked a switch somewhere in Brussels, so the people that do pay think I am still based in Brussels and so won’t pay me in my UK account yet…the wheels turn slowly sometimes, in any big organisation, and ours is no different.

Nothing big planned for today, except meeting my European Parliament colleague, but that’s the joy of press work – you just never know what’s going to come up!

Euonymics

euonym (n):

1. (obscure) A name well suited to a person, place or thing so named.

2. (contemp.) The name of the weblog of the new head of media at the European Commission office in London.

That’ll be me!

So. I arrived from Brussels on Sunday, and settled into my temporary home staying with the lovely Rob and Amanda in their lovely home in Balham. I’ll be here for a month while I get myself sorted with a place to stay. Already on Monday I went to look at somewhere – a houseboat on Eel Pie Island. It was great and I’m going to go back and have another look, as well as going along the river with my cousins to see what else there is.

The first week has been fun so far. Monday was the usual “first day at school”, unpacking boxes, getting a telephone, working out where the loos are and that sort of thing. But now I’m starting to get into it, have even taken a few phone calls!

One of my responsibilities is “cultural diplomacy” which covers the work the Rep does in promoting European culture. That’s going to be ery rewarding and right up my street! Already in this first week I’ve been to an exhibition of paintings by the Luxemburg ambassador and a film festival up at Notting Hill Gate. Last night I saw “Elle s’appelle sabine” about Sandrine Bonnaire’s autisitic sister and tonight I’m going to see “I’ve Loved You So Long” and might even get to meet the film’s star – Kirsten Scott Thomas!

One of the team is leaving on maternity leave, so we had a nice hello/goodbye lunch with the team yesterday and a baby shower. It’s going to be very different, in lots of good ways, working in a small office like this, rather than a gargantuan one like the Berlaymont. In a way it’s an atmosphere I’m used to, having grown up around embassies. And the office is in an area where I know a lot of people (all those civil servants) so it shouldbe quite easy to keep in touch with people.

The President is in town today, so the office is pretty quiet at people are out supporting him and his entourage. He’s not doing any media except a press point with the PM, so I haven’t had to get involved – which is a relief, given I know nothing at the moment. Hopefully I’ll be a bit more clued in next time he comes. The big thing here is going to be getting the planning right – like in my old job, if you plan for the things you can plan for, then the emergencies that crop up can be dealt with more effectively. So we’ve been looking at what’s coming up in the next few months to see what seems to be of particular relevance to British business or society. I think there’s some good things coming up, so watch this space!

 

Musings of an EMA student