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It’s a strange week in Brussels. There are definitely fewer people around. The STIB timetables are set to vacances scolaires, and you don’t keep bumping into people on the Rue du Luxembourg. No-one seems to be picking up the phone at the European Commission.
But hark! What is that I hear? Is it the sound of MEPs pressing the electronic voting button in the Parliamentary committees? A smattering of applause as another own-initiative report passes inspection and scuttles off to be grilled in Plenary.
The Lobby’s inbox is swamped with out-of-office requests to contact so-and-so-‘s assistant (assistants, as noted in a previous post, don’t seem to take holidays), yet the Brussels policy machine rumbles on. This can of course present problems for those in the EU bubble who want to spend “quality time” with their children over the school holidays, yet need to keep up with the latest developments in the institutions – if The Lobby had its own family of mini-Lobbies, we may be inclined to sympathise.
MEPs, too, feel the strain. Monica Frassoni, when an MEP, always complained at being called to Brussels on urgent Parliamentary business during Easter week, and used to say so during Committee meetings. Just today, a Polish MEP assistant known to The Lobby complained wearily as we ascended the escalator in the Parliament about having to start back so early – Easter Tuesday morning, in fact.
Still, at least those MEPs busily voting away this week can rest easy in the knowledge that, come August, it will be their turn to be on holiday whilst lobbyists up and down the city will be preparing for the onslaught of la rentrée.
The institutions always seem so keen to harmonise standards across the EU, yet as long as lobbyists continue to take holidays at variance with the EU institutional calendar it will likely be them who suffer in the long-run. Which is why The Lobby is working today!
It’s quiet. Too quiet. There are fewer buses. There are no queues at the sandwich joints on the Rue du Luxembourg. Tumbleweed can be seen blowing through the buildings of the European Parliament and the Berlaymont. You can walk over Rue Belliard against the red man because there is no traffic. The Indian takeaway across the road has gone on holiday – for six weeks!
If only everywhere was like this. When The Lobby goes to London this evening it will be met with the well-known hustle and bustle of a city that doesn’t so much sleep as one that never goes on holiday. In London August will be indistinguishable from September, which in turn will be the same as November, March, and June – and always has been and always will be.
Brussels, however, is different. It is as if the whole city has breathed its last and keeled over. The shops are still here. Some of the bars are still open. But the atmosphere, the hubbub, has left the building. Out of offices now spam my inbox. People are “not contactable”, have “no access to emails”, and ask you “in urgent matters” to contact their secretary (do secretaries never go on holiday?)
This year though the silence is masking what is still to come. Autumn will see the probable ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, set to fundamentally change how EU policy is agreed, and ushering in a new EU President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs. In the institutions, a new Commission will take to the boards on 1 November, and a new Parliament will get down to business and fight its corner in relation to its two rivals.
As if that wasn’t enough, December sees a historic climate change summit take place in Copenhagen which will – and must – decide on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, whilst at the same time the EU economy continues to flounder, particularly in the east. Meanwhile, a new global order flexes its muscles as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) begin to bang on the door of western hegemony.
Hard though it is to believe for those of us left in Brussels during these summer months, the EU finds itself on a precipice entirely of its own making. To jump? Or to retrace our steps? The next few months will dictate how the EU will look like in ten, twenty, nay fifty years time.
Meanwhile the sun is shining, the policy paper trail has momentarily subsided – so let’s step outside and enjoy it while it lasts.
Brussels Airport has decided to follow in the UK’s footsteps and make passengers remove their shoes as they go through security. All well and good, you may think, though perhaps a bit smelly – until, that is, you find yourself rushing to catch a plane only to run quite literally into the back of a scrum of people, all of whom are waiting to go through the detectors.
It would seem the airport had introduced this extra measure without taking into account the added time required for people to unlace their shoes, unbuckle their boots, and slip off their sandals – causing unprecedented chaos and a lengthy queue stretching down the walkway.
The Lobby has now witnessed this furore twice in two weeks, and no improvement has been made in the intervening time. On returning from holiday a few weeks ago – oh how we laughed! – as we passed the masses patiently waiting in line, whilst we walked on and out of the airport, having just arrived ourselves.
A week later and the smiles were wiped off our faces, as on leaving Brussels we found ourselves on the opposite side of the cordon and faced with a 30 minutes wait and the stench of smelly feet. No organisation whatsoever from the authorities, but plenty of patience from all the passengers – the sort of event that reignites your hope for humanity. Alas, the same cannot be said for the organisation skills of the airport authorities.