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Eastern Europe's cigarettes

By Manneken Pis   February 2003


The new enlarged Europe is going to be a confusing place for us all. At the Copenhagen summit in December, Jack Straw-looking for a quiet place to chat with some journalists-dodged into an empty briefing-room, remarking-“I’m sure the Russians won’t mind if we borrow their room for a while.” Actually, foreign secretary, the Russians aren’t yet allowed into EU summits. That strange-looking Cyrillic script you saw on the wall was Bulgarian-reflecting the interesting fact that Bulgaria is negotiating to join the EU, while Russia is not. Straw’s sidekick in Copenhagen was the new Europe minister, Denis MacShane. After the succession of lost souls who have had this portfolio, MacShane is a refreshing change-passionately interested in the subject, loquacious, indiscreetly fluent in French and German. Nor is he shy about letting the world know about his language skills and excellent contacts. Indeed, he likes to suggest stories to journalists which tend to feature him in a flattering light-a habit that has led to him being dubbed “MacShameless.”

Meanwhile, the main impact of enlargement on the press room is that there is a lot more powerfully-scented tobacco smoke floating around, causing much pursing of lips amongst the western European journalists. It makes you wonder whether one unexpected side-effect of taking in the eastern Europeans could be to encourage a renewed entente cordiale. The French and the British may distrust one another. But faced with Slovaks, Romanians and the like, the British and French suddenly remember how much they have in common: relative wealth, a haughty pride in their own history and a shared distaste for powerful Oriental tobacco.

The FT gets tough

One of the great talking points in Brussels is the alleged deterioration in the European coverage of the Financial Times. The pink paper-along with Le Monde-has long been essential morning reading for Eurocrats, diplomats and assorted hangers-on. It is the only English language paper which really covers the daily goings-on in Brussels in depth and where you can be certain to find details of the fascinating new competition case or Balkans initiative. The problem, according to the Eurocrats, is the new, young, thrusting FT bureau chief, George Parker. Parker is an ex-lobby correspondent and is accused of bringing a Westminster style of reporting to Brussels-focusing on leaks, splits and speculation. “Sensationalist and lacking in nuance,” is one disgruntled Eurocrat’s verdict. The FT’s detailed reporting of accusations by the commission’s chief accountant that the commission’s accounting system is unreliable aroused particular ire. The commission trotted out a series of senior officials to assure the press that there was no problem-so it was felt to be somehow unsporting that the FT kept banging on about it.

Even other members of the press corps are getting sniffy. The FT bureau chief always used to be a member of a group of journalists who hold regular off-the-record dinners with top politicians and officials. But, when a few months back, Parker committed the shocking sin of writing a diary item loosely based on a dinner with Giuliano Amato-the vice-president of the constitutional convention-his fellow hacks from Le Figaro, S?ddeutsche Zeitung and so on were outraged. So outraged that Parker ended up resigning from the dining club. (The fact that Amato himself was relaxed about the article cut no ice with the high-minded hacks.) Even the British ambassador to the EU, Nigel Sheinwald, got in on the act, holding a discreet lunch with Parker and Brian Groom, the FT’s Europe editor to see if the paper might tone down its coverage. He was told firmly that the bosses in London regard Brussels as a “model bureau.” The irony, of course, is that the alleged change in the tone of the FT’s coverage of Brussels is perceptible only to cognoscenti. But then an anal addiction to small details has always been the mark of the true Brussels insider.

The London problem

Christmas is the time when many Brussels-based Brits flit home for a week before returning to their Belgian base, shaking their heads about the rat race back home. Viewed from Brussels, middle-class Londoners seem to lead a miserable existence, as they bankrupt themselves in the search for a reasonable place to live and an education for their children. Even middle-ranking Eurocrats in Brussels can afford what now seems like unimaginable luxury in London: a good-sized house with a garden in the centre of the city. House prices here are roughly a third of the level in London. It also helps that commission officials get to send their children to the European school for free and pay an income tax of 15 per cent-rather than the more standard Belgian rate of 55 per cent. “When I go back to the southeast of England,” muses one senior Briton at the commission, “it seems more and more like Japan. Huge numbers of people packed into the trains; crazy property prices; and parents obsessed with getting their children into the right school from the age of three.” But all this head-shaking about Britain is also often tinged with a degree of alarm. Many of the British long-term residents of Brussels have not kept property back home. As a result they face a choice between permanent exile; or a precipitous drop in living standards, should they ever move back to London.

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